28 April 2015

The clock turns over

At 2.25pm on Thursday 28th April 2005 I was sitting at my desk in the basement of Leinster House. Mindful that I'd be beering in Birmingham in a few weeks' time, and that Oktoberfest was on the horizon for the autumn, I figured it was time to stop putting off starting a beer blog. Having satisfied myself that all the good names were already taken I picked a rubbish one, wrote an introductory post and clicked "Publish".

And here we are now: ten years, 1100 posts and some 4000 beers later. I suppose some sort of celebration is called for. I bought some Rodenbach Caractère Rouge, special like. Rodenbach has been my drinking buddy for longer than 10 years, so it seemed an appropriate choice.

This is a 7% ABV special edition given two years in oak and then six months ageing on raspberries, cherries and cranberries. I don't know if six months is a lot or a little as these things go, but the fruit certainly leaps out, with an immediate burst of tart fresh raspberries on the first sip, and then luscious juicy cherries coming in after and the dry tang of cranberry juice putting an edge on the finish. And the mature sour base beer is also present, subtle wood and just the light, refreshing acetic quality that I love about standard Rodenbach but is overdone in the Grand Cru. I'm glad it comes in 75cl bottles because it's very easy drinking. Well, it is my birthday, after all.

27 April 2015

On the rebound

It has been a while since a new Sierra Nevada beer has impressed me. I suppose that's not something the brewers of Torpedo need worry about: I'll continue to be impressed by Torpedo for a long as they make it.

Auditioning today is Boomerang, an IPA brewed using -- yes, you're ahead of me -- Australian hops. It's a very pale chap, the perfectly clear light gold of many a nondescript eurolager. The aroma is quite lagery too, giving off a strong green nettle effect reminiscent of German hop culture, though there's a bittersweet cloudy lemonade character lurking cheekily under the surface.

There's nothing merely cheeky about the flavour though. In fact, it's downright impertinent. A blast of waxy bitterness leads the charge, and keeps running, lasting on the lips long after everything else has happened. "Everything else" is a combination of lime flesh, grapefruit pith, and a thin spread of sweeter mango and passionfruit. There's not much room for the malt to say anything in all that, but it does contribute to the body: a lovely smooth texture that makes what could be a very harsh beer surprisingly easy drinking.

Am I impressed by it? Yes, I think so. It's certainly not the sort of American IPA you meet every day. But I just have a minor niggle over the length of that bitterness. A little more of the tropical fruit and I'd have been singing its praises more.

23 April 2015

Brave

I'm not given to amateur industry analysis but it's always pleasing to see signs of maturity in the Irish beer market: indicators that it's not all lowest-common-denominator recipes being thrown out for mass consumption, but that there are also enough interested drinkers to support a more diverse offer. And, of course, that there are brewers and breweries with the talent and resources to do such diversity well. Today's beers are both types that we haven't really seen here before and I'm delighted to have them breaking new ground.

Desperate Mile is by Galway Bay Brewery and makes much of its daring combination of hoppiness with sourness, in what seems like a reasonable 5.4% ABV half-litre package. It pours out a slightly hazy gold and smells at first just like a fresh pale ale, all juicy mandarins and pineapples to begin. But a second sniff revealed the signature nitre brickiness of top-notch Belgian lambic and suggests there's a tart treat to come. And sure enough, there on the first pull is a popping, puckering full-on sourness, but one which instantly gives way to the hop fruit. I don't know if it's the varieties chosen or if it's the extra acid loaned by the souring bugs, but the hop flavours are especially pithy here: lime and grapefruit are in the ascendant. Perhaps surprisingly the finish is quick, with neither hoppiness nor sourness sticking around for long on the thin body.

Desperate Mile launched as a limited bottle-only special, but like its predecessor Heathen, I reckoned it would work best as a down-the-hatch refreshment delivery system. I was able to put that to the test yesterday at The Beer Market, Galway Bay's newest Dublin outlet and one which takes the brave ethos to the city's on-trade. Desperate Mile may have lost a little on the hop front in the intervening weeks but still makes for a beautifully invigorating pint.

Meanwhile, Trouble Brewing has released what I think is Ireland's first triple IPA. Hop Priority is 11.1% ABV, which sounds about right to me. I caught up with it on keg in the Bull & Castle shortly after it was released.

The aroma isn't really up to much, just some light pine; I expected more from a beer that isn't shy about its all-round bigness. There's an immediate smack of hard liquor bitterness on the first sip and a waft of booze vapours up the nose. But, bizarrely, while it's heavily textured and clearly as high-octane as the ABV suggests, it's not hot as such. Instead of a warmth akin to sherry or brandy, it burns with the clean blue flame of an overclocked vodka. The knock-on effect is that it provides a perfect neutral base for bright and fresh hop flavours, so you get lots of mango, pineapple and even a dash of coconut. This sweet fruit far outweighs the bitter qualities and makes it a remarkably easy drinking beer. Served cold by the half pint it would be very easy to knock back, and that would not be a good idea. Overall a very impressive offering and a real testament to the brewers' skill.

So there, then, are a couple of new benchmarks for daring Irish beer. Beat that, everyone else.

20 April 2015

A yard of ale

As usual, Easter Saturday meant the trip to Cork for Franciscan Well's annual beer festival. I arrived in the city a little early so called in to Market Lane on Oliver Plunkett Street for lunch, and to try the beers from the adjoining Elbow Lane brewery. I'd had a couple of these (stout and lager) a few years back, when they were still being contract brewed, but haven't seen much of them since. The brewery has now added a red, a weiss and a pale ale to the line-up. Sadly, only the first of these, Wisdom, was available. And also sadly it was bady infected. There's a rich and wholesome toffee-laden red ale lurking in there somewhere but it's bookended with a phenolic buzz -- hard and jarring at the front and lasting long into the finish too -- making it taste of swimming pools, leaning towards more severe TCP. I'm always amazed when brewers deem beer that tastes so badly off to be fit for sale. Hopefully Elbow Lane will get their act together as Market Lane is a smart little bistro with good food and superb service. It deserves better beer.

A swift pint of Survivor, now re-named "Dream Catcher", in Rising Sons since it was on the way, and then into the back yard of Franciscan Well for the 2pm kick-off.

Even though this isn't Ireland's biggest beer festival any more, it still packs the crowds in and it wasn't long before the place was buzzing. 18 breweries were represented, a mix of regulars and new-comers. My starting beer was Seaweed Saison, brewed by Dungarvan when Kjetil Jikiun from Nøgne Ø came to visit. It's 6.5% ABV and a hazy pale orange colour. Dry saison spices are the main action, given extra impact by an unusually heavy texture. A bunch of us gathered round the glass to see if we could pick out the maritime elements and found a touch of iodine and ozone in the aroma and a mild saltiness in the flavour, especially as it warms. Other than that, it's pretty down-the-line for a novelty beer, which is probably a good thing.

Even though they arrive at a fairly regular clip these days it's always exciting to encounter new breweries and there were two Munster débutantes at the EasterFest. Well, West Cork Brewing has been going since late last year, but I missed their beer at the February Winter Ales Festival and was glad to be able to catch up. Roaring Ruby is the red, arriving murky from the cask and, while it could benefit from being a bit cleaner was perfectly palateable. I got lots of milk chocolate and spiced caramel notes, finishing on a slightly acidic green apple bite which helps make this sweet and filling beer surprisingly refreshing. Its stablemate is a pale ale called Sherkin Lass. This is pure apricot goodness, the light cask carbonation adding a sherbet quality making for a very smooth and quaffable pale bitter. It's the sort of beer I could picture drinking a lot of when visiting the brewery's Baltimore home.

Also making their first appearance at the festival was The Killarney Brewing Company, represented by brewer and co-owner AJ, formerly of Figueroa Brewing in California. He had an odd choice of first-run beers on offer, a helles and a golden ale. A bit similar, no? Anyway, Devil's Helles had few fans around the yard, but I was charmed by it. Yes, there's a bit of butterscotch going on, but it's within the bounds of acceptability. The density and sweetness are spot-on for authentic helles and best of all there's a crunchy green celery bite from the hops that really completes the picture nicely. Golden Spear was the other one: a simple and crisp beer with light honey and floral meadows, building as it goes to a more intense perfume.

But if it was perfume you were after, you'd have to stop by the UCC Microbrewery stand. For a second year in a row they eschewed traditional German styles and had a 5.6% ABV pale ale, named pÚCCa on offer. This was a beautiful clear gold colour but the harsh hop perfume made it tough going for me, not at all helped by a thick, almost greasy, texture, like ambergris or balsam. Too intense to be enjoyable. The students' quadruple, Innocence, was much better: dark copper in colour and smelling quite bitter or tart. The flavour is all moist fruit, however: wet juicy raisins and brown banana for a sumptuous sort of fruitcake effect. A liquorice bitterness finishes it on a flourish and there's no sign at all of the whopping 9.6% ABV.

The headliner for the UCC selection, however, was Keen-Wah‽, a beer brewed (obviously) from quinoa. It's a 100% quinoa grain bill in fact and the producers are keeping schtum about the method used, though boasting that the end result is entirely gluten-free. At only 3.3% ABV, I was expecting some sort of thin watery psuedo-beer but it was actually very impressive. There's a big bubblegum flavour, verging on clove and perhaps banana syrup too, but definitely the kind of thing you find in proper German weissbier. I got a certain lemon tartness too, bringing us closer to Belgian witbier. Either way, this stuff does a very convincing impression of real beer and could be a winner if it were commercially viable. I suspect that the cost of the main ingredient is what has kept the ABV down. If it's merely to be appreciated as an example of the brewer's art then fine: I did that.

Two dark beers to finish on. Bo Bristle has a new Stout out. Dave seems quite pleased with it. Its ancestry can be traced to the milk chocolate stout the Offaly brewery produced during the winter, though this is a much more modest 4.5% ABV. It retains a bit of lactose sugar which adds a sweet and tangy complexity to an otherwise straightforward dry Irish session stout. There's a sort of raspberry fruit tart too, which is unusual but pleasant.

And my beer of the festival was Black Lightning, a 6.5% ABV black IPA by 9 White Deer. Lots and lots of fresh Simcoe went in to dry hop this admittedly unattractive-looking murky brown beer. That gave it a fantastic zingy orange sherbet aroma. The flavour features that too, with rounded jaffa and mandarin plus bonus lavender and a tiny dry bitter bite on the finish for balance, the only sign in the flavour that this isn't simply a pale ale.

Cheers as always to the brewers and the hosts. There's talk of moving the festival out of the Franciscan Well yard altogether. I hope its unique atmosphere can be retained once the crowding issues are dealt with.



16 April 2015

Hells angles

So slow is my transference of drinking experiences to this blog that it's possible to follow the evolution of individual beers, whole styles even, in single posts. Camden Town's Indian Summer was an exciting prototype on its second annual outing when I found it on tap in The Black Sheep in the middle of last year.

It arrived looking like a kristall weiss, clear gold in a tall Germanic pint glass, topped by a generous head. The aroma was unequivocally that of an IPA, all grapefruit, lime and mandarin. But it tasted like lager: crisp, fresh and with little aftertaste. While it certainly had plenty of hop oils lurking in there, the tropical fruit flavours took primacy over the bitterness just the way I like. The end result was a complex but very refreshing and drinkable beer, expertly hiding its hefty 6.4% ABV.

I looked forward to seeing more of it but it seems Camden Town weren't prepared to leave well enough alone and you can follow the transformation in more detail on Mr Curtis's blog here. Next thing I'm walking out of DrinkStore with a 33cl can of something called India Hells Lager.

Obviously it's almost impossible to compare Indian Summer meaningfully with its successor, a beer that seems to have become the brewery's flagship, or at least the product that gets talked about most. The golden colour and pillow of foam are repeated, though I got more sweet tropical fruit in the aroma: some pineapple in with your grapefruit. I think, however, that the lager element is lost in the flavour. There's a massive fresh cut-grass bitterness, almost peppery, and then the grapefruit, lime and all the rest of that. But this time the alcohol is very apparent, even though it's a smidge lower at 6.2% ABV: the texture is heavy, thick even, very much like a warm-fermented IPA. This isn't a bad thing, and really the residual sugar provides a stage for the big hops to act out their roles expansively. But I miss the clean, crisp quaffability of the original and found the intense lime pith of IHL just a bit too much like hard work to drink.

The lager gods have answered the prayers of hopheads and while I don't want to be one of those irrelevant old fossils bleating on about balance, I do prefer my superhopped bleeding-edge lagers to be a bit more, well, lagery.

13 April 2015

Flight of the wolf

The Wicklow Wolf Brewing Company was kind enough to invite a Beoir delegation down to its headquarters in Bray for a look round and a run through the range. Established in 2014 by ex-home brewers inspired by the Colorado way of life, the compact ex-bakery near the station is now turning out 1,650 litres of beer at a time, 12 times a month, supplying 50 pubs and 200 off licences (yes, I took notes) with a range of four core beers and varying specials, all delivered unfined and unfiltered.

The brewery has been kitted out well for its new use, and particularly impressive is the tasting bar at the front: the sort of thing you'd be more likely to see in the US or London than Wicklow. Sadly it's not open for general public use. Stupid licensing laws.

I had been hoping to get a taste of the latest Wicklow Wolf seasonal, Falconer's Flight Blonde, but Quincey informed me that it had all left the brewery at that stage. Luckily, I happened across a bottle in DrinkStore a few days later and snapped that up. I still had a bottle of their last seasonal Blonde, Locavore, knocking around so I decided to open them side-by-side for comparison.

Six months on from brewing, Locavore has calmed down a little. The bitter lemon-and-wax effect I perceived when I first drank it has mellowed and there's more of a gentle sweetness going on. The new kid, however, has all of that wax in spades. Though the same colour and a tiny bit stronger, Falconer's Flight Blonde is assertively bitter, almost heading for a metallic tang. I noticed the fill level on the bottle was lower than on the Locavore and I'm putting the lighter carbonation down to that. After a moment or two at room temperature the malt starts to make its presence felt, adding an insistent honey and bubblegum complexity. The end result is something that tastes very much like a northern English golden bitter. Maybe not quite Boltmaker, but close your eyes and wish and you're nearly in the zone. The Falconer's Flight hop blend may be classically American, but this beer is a long way from Colorado.

Cheers to Quincey, Simon and the team for entertaining us. Wicklow Wolf has already expanded since our visit, with new tanks installed a few weeks ago. Though space is tight I completely agree with the management that there's a tangible benefit to being part of the neighbourhood rather than  occupying just another anonymous industrial unit.



09 April 2015

Geeks bearing gifts

A couple of north American beers today, shared by generous fellow beer nerds.

Nigel produced this bottle of Crooked Coast by Driftwood of British Columbia on a cross-country rail trip a few months back. The brewery has designated it as an altbier, and while I can see that -- it has the right sort of wholemeal biscuit malt base -- it's much bitterer than typical alt, with an unpleasant English-style waxy hit right at the front. That makes it much more like a brown bitter or a second-rate amber ale than an alt, and just not a great beer whichever way you slice it.

Meanwhile, this bomber of Stone Enjoy By 02.14.15 came via Steve and, for the record, was enjoyed just two days past the recommended date so shouldn't be too far from the brewer's intention. Besides which, it's 9.4% ABV: that seems like a stabilising strength to me, enough to carry a beer that was bottled on 9th January. It pours a clear gold and is hot and thick at first, greasy with hop oils and burning its way onto the palate with high-acid grapefruit. But a few sips in and it starts to balance out and make more sense. The heat and acidity die down a little and you're left with a mellow but spicy sipping beer. This is another one of those softly-spoken high-quality Stone beers that makes me wonder why they bother with all the bluster and machismo in their branding. "Devastatingly desireable"? I'm charmed, but I'm not devastated.