25 May 2018

Lag time

I was in P. Mac's for a different reason entirely when I found a Lagunitas event taking place. It centred around one of only two kegs of Willettized stout in the country. This is Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout aged in rye whisky barrels acquired from the Willett Distillery in Kentucky. That turns the 9.1% ABV imperial stout into a 12.6% ABV beast, but the subtlety it creates is phenomenal. There's no harshness or heat here, and all of the rich coffee flavours from the base beer are still fully present. They're joined by a gorgeous smooth and mature bourbon taste, much lighter on the vanilla than most examples of this kind. This isn't a complex beer, and it lacks any gimmickry; instead it represents a pure simple elegance, a lot like fine whisky itself.

A few short weeks later it was 20th April, bringing a multi-pub launch of their triple IPA The Waldos, and I was back in P. Mac's. Lagunitas tends to go big on the residual sugar so I was terrified of what would happen when the ABV hit 11.7%. Yes, it's thick, but the hop flavours are bright, clean and distinct. There's no sugary syrup and not even any oily resins. The flavour, as one might expect, goes big on bitterness, with classic Californian grapefruit and lime up first, then a softer and more nuanced pineapple behind. I found it remarkably easy to drink, though I'd say a few would sneak up on one very quickly.

Something gentler was required next, and "moderate... slightly alcoholic" read the description of Sumpin' Easy, despite it being a somewhat stonking 5.7% ABV: not exactly where I'd put the moderation marker. It looks light and innocent, a pale and limpid straw colour with just a very slight haze. The aroma is gently tropical: mango, pineapple and papaya, enticing me into a big first gulp. That showed the carbonation to be low, just a pleasant prickle of gas. The flavour is fruit-forward but not the way I expected. Instead of juicy tropical produce, it's sweet and sticky strawberries to the fore. Behind this there's an almost-bitterness which has a little pine but also some offputting plastic and cheap chemical candy. It coats the palate like one of those gummy ice cream IPAs. This isn't the summery refresher I wanted it to be and easy it ain't.

A sticky session IPA next to a clean and dry triple IPA? What have Lagunitas been smoking? Oh. I see.

23 May 2018

Wait, what?

"Oh, Valravn!" I thought, browsing the shelves in Redmond's. "I haven't had that in ages!"

Only when I got the bottle home and did a bit of research did I discover that I'd never had it at all. How did that happen?

This is the souped-up imperial version of Thornbridge's black IPA Wild Raven, though 8.8% ABV against 6.6% isn't exactly a radical transformation. It's an extremely dense black with a handsome off-white head. My bottle was a little on the elderly side but the hops were still getting busy, with Sorachi Ace's coconut elbowing the Nelson, Ella and Centennial out of the way. The thick darkness, in combination with the residual bitterness, give it a major bang of liquorice. A faint roasted element brings the finish, balancing in a way, but this is much more about those hops than the dark malt.

It doesn't taste anything like the strength, though. It's downright sessionable: smooth, tangy and bitter to the extent of mouth-watering, not throat-burning. I'm wondering whether it really needed to be this strong, but hey, I'll take it.

Quality stuff here, as might be expected. I'm just a little sad it took me this long to find it.

21 May 2018

A few thirds

Third Barrel has become one of my go-to local producers of late. The series of one-offs produced by the brewery in west Dublin has largely surpassed the regular beers it makes under its constituent brands, Stone Barrel and Third Circle. New ones have been landing fast enough lately to warrant a post of their own.

Flaschenpost Pils was the second beer from intern Alex, who also brewed their recent Alt (reviewed here). I was hoping for something very classically German when I got my pint, but it was not to be. Coconut! The first mouthful gave me a big hit of oily bittersweet coconut, and that is not part of the pils playbook for me. This taste lasted all the way through, allowing very little past it. I detected a very slight grassiness, some smooth golden syrup, and there's a proper crisp finish -- all things that belong here and I would have enjoyed more if they'd been further to the fore. Why would you spoil it with a big coconutty hop thing? I finished my pint confused.

The first off-trade offering arrived in the form of Third Barrel IPA, a 6.8% ABV US-style job in a 440ml can. It poured a deep and dense orange-amber colour, topped by masses of stiff and thick foam. The aroma offers an enticing mix of dankness and citrus but doesn't even hint at what's to come. This beer is bitter, powerfully and deliciously so, in an old-school west-coast style. It's not harsh, though: the texture is thick, the carbonation at an almost cask-like low level, and there's lots of dry tannin, all of these serving to smooth the edges and round it out. The emerging flavours are green veg acidity, waxy sappy resins, and sparks of instense citrus: grapefruit pith leading to lime essence. All of this hangs together beautifully, integrated and harmonious. No gimmicks, no juice, just plenty of properly-focused IPA hop power.

Back to the pub, and the appearance of Raspberry Stout on cask at The Black Sheep. Fruit and stout isn't always a great combination, with the fruit being lost completely half the time, and ruining the beer with syrupy gloop the rest. This one nailed it, however. The raspberry flavour is huge and real; juicy and jammy with a tart edge. A velvety smooth chocolate complements and contrasts with it. The whole thing slips down easier than one might expect for 6% ABV, and while it might look like a pastry stout on paper it lacks the gloop factor. I could easily have gone for a second pint straight after.

I'll squeeze one new Third Circle beer in here. I missed their tap takeover event at UnderDog but did manage to catch one of the leftovers: Blue Sky, a Brett rye saison. What does that mean? Well, it's 6.5% ABV and a pale orange colour. There's lots of Belgian character apparent from the outset: banana first, then the ripe peach that Brett often brings, without any farmyard funk. And that's pretty much it, other than a dry grain crunch in the finish and a slightly syrupy texture. It's OK, but less than the sum of its parts, perhaps.

To round off, a Third Barrel one-off that appeared just last Friday, pouring simultaneously in UnderDog, 57 The Headline and Brickyard. Summer Simcoe SMASH doesn't leave you guessing as to what it is, though it wasn't as Simcoey as I expected. It's only 4.9% ABV, and I guess it's the summer side of the equation that has left it sweet and fruity instead of bitter and resinous. The aroma is all fruit chews while the flavour is dominated by a ripe tangerine character, only turning any way bitter towards the end. The orangeade feel is accentuated by a slightly syrupy texture, though it's still light enough to be easy drinking. What they've achieved here is one of those juicy pale ales that other brewers make by adding fruit concentrate, except without any additions. I expect we'll be seeing more like this before summer is out.

From this set, Third Barrel certainly can't be accused of being conservative in the styles it picks to brew. I'm a big fan of the scattergun approach to recipe design and am already looking forward to what pops up next.

18 May 2018

A load of ballasts

With much fanfare, a range of beers from San Diego's iconic Ballast Point brewery landed in Ireland recently, brought by importer FourCorners. I first encountered them at the official launch event in UnderDog.

My starting point here was Sour Wench, a sour beer with added blackberries. It's a big-hitter at 7% ABV, and is a full-on dense-looking shade of purple. The flavour is extremely jam-like: excessively sweet and missing any real sourness. Mercifully it doesn't cloy, and the finish is neatly clean, but I couldn't shake a feeling that I was drinking the topping from a cheap supermarket cheesecake. I prefer my wenches with more class than this.

Sculpin I've had in the past, and didn't particularly enjoy, and the same went for Grapefruit Sculpin when that came my way a couple of years ago. I still gave Unfiltered Sculpin a go while it was there, and was glad I did. This just seems better balanced than the others; its flavours more integrated and harmonious. A bright jaffa aroma starts it off, and the flavour blends sweet sherbet and orangeade with a stimulating kick of bitter hops. It's altogether smoother and more drinkable than the filtered one. Sculpin as it should be.

I picked up others in the range for drinking at home. Both cans and bottles are available.

Mango Even Keel is a rare beast indeed: an imported American IPA with an ABV under 4%. It's only 3.8% but doesn't look at all understated, being a handsome rich copper colour. It smells quite sugary, like sweet candy or... syrup, which I guess it actually contains. The flavour is powerfully sweet, an overwhelming blast of perfumed candy, lurid artificial treats from the impulse section of the corner shop. Whatever the opposite of wholesome is, it's that. The fake-fruit and perfume effect clings to the back of the tongue and sits there, unwelcome, long after swallowing. There's still a hollow dry fizz behind it, probably where the balancing malt ought to be. I refuse to believe any grown adult actually wants their beer to taste like this. I expected mango, I expected juicy, and I expected some hops. What I got was an off-brand pop from Uzbekistan's cheapest discount supermarket.

I needed something straighter to fix my palate after that, and relied on Fathom IPA to do the job. It looks pretty straightforward, being 6% ABV and unembellished. It's a perfect red-gold colour too, though I didn't get much of an aroma from it, just a mild dankness.The flavour is... understated. There's a pleasant sticky and bitter resin thing, and a dusting of light citrus: jaffa and mandarin. Though the body is as big as the ABV suggests, the finish is quick. While undoubtedly plain, it's good quality and well suited to drinking more than one.

Last of this takehome set is Victory at Sea, described as an imperial porter with added coffee and vanilla, about which I was intensely sceptical. It looked nice, though, pouring a smooth and flawless black topped by loose ivory bubbles. As anticipated it's intensely sweet, with an aroma of ersatz milk chocolate and a flavour adding gooey sugary fondant to that. Cadbury's Creme Egg as a beer? Pretty much. There is something resembling a bitter tang in the finish, but it's artificial and metallic, not tasting like it comes from hops or dark grains. There may well be a decent beer underneath the syrupy gloop, but they've buried it deep.

It's hard to believe they thought this unbeery mess needed further "enhancement", but back in UnderDog there was a hacked version: Coconut Victory at Sea. The hacking is done pretty crudely and it tastes and smells like a generous dollop of coconut sun lotion has been dumped into the glass. It does at least cover up the problems with the above beer, but it does so by adding its own brand of artificial syrupyness, and though the coconut mellows as it goes (or maybe I just got used to it) I really don't see the point of this.

Switching pubs, finally, for the double IPA Manta Ray which P. Mac's had on tap. Far from cheap at €9 for 33cl. And for all that it's rather plain: clear gold in the glass, thick and resinous but with no more than a light zest for flavour. It's fine: understated double IPAs are probably better than the ones that come on too strong, but it left me feeling that I got a very poor return on my investment, tastewise.

I went into this as a Ballast Point doubter, and have come out with that confirmed. Unfiltered Sculpin is a rare highlight, but the rest taste either sticky and fake, or just plain dull.

16 May 2018

Payday!

Perusing the shelves in Fresh with a few quid burning a hole in my pocket I settled on a couple of spendy offerings from Siren: triple IPAs, no less; €14 the pair.

The Tickle Monster is your basic mango and cedar IPA, 11% ABV and a bright hazy orange. It smells herbal, almost medicinal, with eucalyptus and bitter tarragon. The alcohol is immediately apparent on tasting, dry and hot like an overclocked vodka. More subtle features roll in behind this: I get an oily coconut taste first, then a gentle spritzy fruit (maybe mango, why not?), then a faint spice on the end which could easily be cedar. It's really not as much fun as it would have you believe, being mostly about the booze heat. At least the bourbon wasn't going to ruin anything delicate.

Bourbon, you say? The Kentucky Tickle Monster didn't endear itself to me from the outset, with its headless appearance and sickly, sugary-cider aroma. It's sickly to drink as well, with a syrupy texture and almost no carbonation. A hugely sweet vanilla flavour is at the centre, laced with bitter orange and grapefruit in a not-at-all complimentary way. The spice from the cedar is still just about discernible, and provides a modicum of relief, though there's only so much it can do to counter a very obvious 16.3% ABV, and everything it brings with it. A 33cl bottle of this is plenty to share with three or four other people, just not necessarily ones you like.

Triple IPA is mostly not for me; barrel-aged ones even less so.

14 May 2018

Hot to DOT

My collection of DOT Brew tasting notes has grown shamefully large. Time to share them with the world.

They begin back in mid-March with an event in the Teeling Distillery, pairing whiskey, beer and cheese -- big thanks to DOT's Shane for comping the tickets. The first beer out was Single Grain Cabernet Sauvignon Session Ale, Batch II. The modest 4.9% ABV belies the immense complexity in this pale amber beer, beginning at the rich white-wine aroma, all tropical mango and apricot. The flavour is correspondingly massive, piling in tonnes of berries and stonefruit, alongside drier raisins and some light wood. The whiskey barrel was an ex-Napa Valley red wine cask and I was amazed at how the wine character survived, though without the tannins. Overall an absolutely superb opener.

Later on we had the début of B8 D8, over a year in the making and involving a convoluted blend of pale, amber and dark Belgian-style ales, matured in eight separate types of barrel. The style is recorded simply as "Dark Ale" and it's 7.7% ABV. "Dark", here, means a deep red. There's a lot of alcohol in the aroma, both strong red wine and whiskey spirit, as well as some drier cocoa. Stout-like roast is where the flavour starts, picking up buttery toffee and raisin fruit after it. There's an edge of oakiness in the very finish but it's no vanilla bomb. I found it a little confusing at first; it's hard to find something to compare it to. Once you get used to it it's less troublesome, offering a smooth and quite easy-going mix of chocolate and dark fruit, harmoniously melded into each other. Tasting it later on draught, the red wine element is much more pronounced at the expense of the chocolate. On a different day and a different mood I might suggest it tastes of other things entirely.

From the off licence I picked up a bottle of Amarone Amber, which I think is my first Amarone-aged beer, though again the barrels became whiskey receptacles in between the wine being done with them and the beer going in. It's another fairly light one at 5.6% ABV, and seemed thin on pouring, coming out a handsome dark copper colour nonetheless. There's a spiced orange aroma and the flavour doubles down on this, offering a surprise mix of juicy jaffa segments and spicy peppery oak. Though it is a little watery, the finish is decently long, tailing off into honeyed Irish whiskey and citrus pith. I liked that the fresh hops were still making a big contribution, contrasting nicely with the wood seasoning. I would have liked more of a wine character, however. As-is it's a neat little beer and, as the label says, surprisingly refreshing.

And then came the main event: DOT's second birthday party, held at UnderDog. Three new-release offerings were in the line-up and I began with Just Peachy, combining peaches, honey and barrel ageing. It came out an opaque red-orange colour with a lightly woody aroma. The flavour, however, is very forward with the fruit, dominated by the sweet peaches and then seasoned with light oak vanilla and spices. I couldn't find any trace of the whiskey or honey. At only 5.5% ABV it's probably not meant to be a total palate pounder, but there was plenty in there to enjoy.

Funnily enough I got a bigger honey aroma from the next one, Tutti, despite there being no honey involved in the recipe. It's 7.2% ABV and a blend of amber and rye ales aged in both bourbon and Irish whiskey barrels, and I'm guessing it's the latter contributing honey to the nose. The flavour is drier than I expected after that, suggesting cool clean Fino sherry, with hints of hotter sweeter Oloroso. It's a difficult contrast to describe; like B8 D8 above, it's a sensory chimera, with radically different facets of flavour blended together yet still contrasting each other. "Markery but fresh" it says in my notes. Useless. Just try the beer, yeah?

I was on steadier stylistic grounds when a keg of Olly's Barrel Aged Imperial Stout went on. The eponymous Olly is DOT's honey supplier, and there's no mistaking the stuff in this one. While it's a thumping imperial stout through and through -- 11.1% ABV, densely textured with lots of milky coffee flavours -- the sticky honey sweetness laces the whole thing. A balancing bitterness arrives on the end, with the light runny honey turning to dark treacle, finishing on a stimulating kick of espresso. This was a great one to end the evening on.

Year three of DOT began just last Friday with a tap takeover up at Brickyard in Dundrum. I arrived to find Andrew had kindly set me up with a glass of Olly's Barrel Aged Imperial Stout with Morello Cherry. The fruit doesn't improve it any, giving it a cherryade sweetness in the foretaste which combines with the thick beer and turns it to sticky liqueur or, less kindly, cough medicine. For all that, it's not unplesantly cloying: the texture is remarkably light and it slips back easily as a result. It is quite unbeery all the same, and doesn't really give the drinker the benefit of the base stout or the honey.

Bourbon Dark is a DOT offering that's been around a while but which I'd not been able to get hold of, and here it was on tap. This is a relatively modest 6.5% ABV and poured a dark chocolate-brown colour. The aroma offered a gentle waft of coconut, and that's very much what I got in the foretaste too. Behind, there's some rough and woody oak sawdust and a sharp shot of espresso. The combination works quite well: starting out sweet ahead of a long dry finish. Something for everyone there. I didn't get any specific bourbon taste but it's definitely warming and smooth so perhaps the whisky was working away in the background somewhere.

Another dark one to finish, the Barrel Fermented Dark Saison. This presented like a stout -- pure black with an off-white skim of foam on top. The flavour is unmistakably saison, however: dry and crisp and its core but livened up with juicy white grape. After a moment or two, something more uniquely dark emerges, a layer of milk chocolate counteracting the dryness, complementing the fruit and generally offering a deft twist on the style. There was a considerable alcoholic warmth going on as well so I wasn't completely surprised to read that it's 8.4% ABV, far stronger than saison normally is. And yet it's not heavy or any way difficult to drink, all being very well balanced and integrated.

That's everything DOT which passed my way this spring. Shane tells me there's an IPA on the way, though in what form remains to be seen.

11 May 2018

Ankers away!

Yesterday's megapost came to you from the Leuven Innovation Beer Festival which happened last month. I mentioned that it was organised by the Hof ten Dormaal brewery. They were also kind enough to send up a selection of their beers for us EBCU delegates to have with our lunch once we'd finished our meeting in the room at the top of the building.

The first one I tried was their collaboration with Weird Beard, the tortuously-named If Only The Hof Had A Beard. See what they did there? It's a soured IPA of a mere 3.8% ABV and poured a hazy yellow colour. The carbonation is low but it's not thin, despite the strength. The centre of the taste is a beautifully zingy lemon rind flavour, fading to a clean chalky mineral finish. This refreshing mix of mild sourness infused with hop sparks makes it fit neatly into one of my favourite sub-categories of beer. I'd drink this by the pint if I could bring myself to order it by name.

I didn't realise that Dormaal had hitched their wagon to sourness quite so securely, but the other two were sour also. Duindoorn too much so. Ostensibly it's a Flanders red, and a strong one at 6.5% ABV. It looks awful for a start: a murky amber brown. The aroma is strongly funky, real dirty farmyard stuff, which isn't a flaw by itself, but combined with a taste that is pure unadulterated malt vinegar, it doesn't go any way towards making this more palatable. Maybe there's a sour beer bro out there who thinks he likes this sort of thing. I, meanwhile, would be willing to support an assessment that it's objectively awful.

I thought I was in for more of the same with Winter 18, a 9% ABV coffee-infused barley wine, soured and barrel-aged for some reason. It smelled rank, like cold stale black coffee. The flavour is better, however, the sourness a nuanced black cherry balsamic, followed by Turkish coffee notes adding a balancing sweetness. It's not one I'd drink a lot of, but a small glass provided plenty to think about.

The bottles of Torpid Mind by Czech gypsy brewer Badflash may have been supplied by the Czech delegate at the meeting as he was also wearing the t-shirt. It's an imperial stout of 10% ABV with smooth and creamy coffee flavours, livened up by just enough bitterness from leafy green-veg hops and any cloying sweetness washed away by black-tea tannins. No gimmicks here in this serious yet fun thumper.

The following morning was our last in Belgium. The vague plan had been to head for Brussels and tramp the well-worn path of familiar pubs before making for the airport. Before checking out of the hotel I opened a map and zoomed out of Leuven, noticing that Mechelen was nearby. It's also handy for the airport and neither of us had been before. That settled it. Train in twenty minutes?

Like many a town in the Low Countries, Mechelen takes its time to get going on a Sunday. When we arrived late morning one of the few options available was the town's ancient brewery, Het Anker, famous for the Gouden Carolus range of beers. That's where we headed.

Having booked our tour we had a couple of minutes to kill in the brewery bar where I opted for Anker Pils, never having seen it before. Our tour-guide-to-be passed by the table and made a disdainful comment, which I thought odd for someone employed to put a positive spin on the brewery and its wares. On the tour later on we learned that Het Anker ceased brewing pils decades ago and this one, created to meet local demand, is contracted out to another brewer in a neighbouring town. As a Sunday morning pils it's fine: light, sweet and crisp, mixing a gentle lemon zest with dry grain husk. It's refreshing and uncomplicated and I was happy with it.

The tour of the quaint facility across the courtyard ended back in the bar with a run-through of the core range. I've covered most of them before but not Carolus Tripel. It's sweet for the style, showing higher fruit levels than normal, and corresponding lower spices. Served on draught it was clear and clean, though still with a big boozy punch. It's OK, but not a classic Belgian tripel by any measure. I'm not inclined to believe the bottled version will be any great shakes either.

Among the recent brand extensions is Cuvée van de Keizer Whisky Infused which started life as a one-off in their Indulgence series in 2015 but went on to become a permanent feature, and was on tap. It arrived a gorgeous clear red wine colour with a nose of plump raisin and, yes, whisky. The flavour is whisky first, then smooth and vinous malt-driven beer afterwards. There are no warm fruity esters, no booze heat despite 11.7% ABV, and generally no sharp edges. This is smooth to the point of being, well, dull. It's certainly nowhere near as complex as I was expecting.

A lovely glass of Hopsinjoor finished me off for the brewery, and a lovelier Oude Gueze Boon at charming waterside bar De Gouden Vis finished me for Mechelen. Back to the airport, then, with enough time to check out its new beer offer.

For all the time I've been flying out of here, Interbrew/InBev have had a near monopoly on the beer supply: nothing but Leffe, Hoegaarden and Stella. That arrangement seems to to have come to an end and there's now a fancy new food hall with a range of fancy, if expensive, Belgian beers, including gueze from Beersel. There's even a house beer: Bistrot Airport by Brouweij Dilewyns, best known for its Vicaris range and situated not far from the airport. I was poured a goblet of thick orange beer with lots of suspended floaty clumps in it. The aroma is thickly sweet, like hard candy, though thankfully its flavour is drier, with wholesome breadcrust the main feature, backed by a subtle note of exotic jasmine. This is an unadventurous beer, but unmistakably Belgian, so ideal for the weary traveller.

This weary traveller quaffed it down and went home to Dublin, full of the joys of multifaceted Belgian beer.