26 November 2014

Barrel of laughs

Quite a convoluted back story comes with the new one from Franciscan Well. The four-pack their PR people sent me was accompanied by a leaflet explaining the concept of the chaser. The beer, Jameson Aged Pale Ale, has not only been aged in whiskey barrels but is also recommended to be served alongside a shot. Creative playfulness or a cynical joint effort by Molson Coors and Pernod Ricard to sell each other's products? Not that it matters.

What matters is the beer: 33cl bottles beautifully presented in Jameson's dark green and gold livery. It pours a flawless pale amber colour and smells rather sticky: Lucozade and hard candy, with maybe a mild whiskeyish air. The texture is very light for a 6% ABV beer with lots of prickle from the carbonation.

It's not very strongly flavoured and anyone looking for a big hit from the Cascade hops will be disappointed, but there's a different sort of complexity at work, mostly malt-related. There's more of that candy, a gorgeous brown bread crusty dryness and then an intense honeyish sweetness with mild wood overtones which I'm guessing is the Irish whiskey at work.

The recommendation, of course, is to drink this with a Jameson. "The biscuit and malt of the pale ale balance perfectly with the vanilla that is peppered with spicy wood and and hints of sweet sherry" it says here. Sadly, my house whiskey is Power's rather than Jameson, but sure it all comes from the same place. And I can't say I'm convinced -- the two flavours just disappear into each other and I can't tell if the honey is coming from the beer or the whiskey. If anything, the subtle complexities in the beer are scorched into oblivion by the hot spirit on my palate next to it.

Franciscan Well Jameson Aged Pale Ale is a nice beer for free and the idea behind it is a fun gimmick. But the ceremony is not to be taken seriously.

25 November 2014

Getting a rise

Yesterday's post was about Diageo's attempt to take advantage of Ireland's growing appetite for new beers. It's far from the only major player in the country to do so. In fact, they're all at it. Forever nipping at Diageo's heels is Heineken, and the Dutch behemoth has taken a very different approach with its latest offering.

While the new Guinness porters were released with huge fanfare and saturation marketing, Rising Road Pale Ale is almost a stealth beer. Only for the fact that it seems to mostly show up in bars where Heineken has a foot firmly in the door -- the places that have Tiger and Paulaner on tap already -- there's no way of even beginning to guess where it comes from.

My first impression on ordering a pint is that it's not "pale" by any stretch of the imagination, but is resolutely copper coloured. Tastewise it has a lot in common with its Diageo lookalike Smithwick's: a similar crispness and the slightly metallic tang of English hops. At the centre there are lots of very clean and quenching tannins, and hiding behind this a toffee base that gradually comes out of its shell as the beer warms.

The low-level hopping, and flavour generally, is certain to disappoint those drinkers who have just started associating the phrase "pale ale" with bold citrus bitterness. It certainly disappointed me. That said, it's technically flawless and perfectly potable. Though if it's priced higher than Smithwick's on the same bar, on account of being a pale ale dontcherknow, it's not worth paying the premium.

24 November 2014

Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

I can't help but feel that Diageo have fashioned a rod for their own backs with The Brewers Project. It's easy to read it as promising things that it was never really intended to deliver, and that's just going to annoy people.

My experience of it began back in early September when the company invited a small group of bloggy types to St. James's Gate to learn about the Project, the first time they have ever done so. As everyone is doubtless aware at this stage the Project has been launched with two new beers: Guinness Dublin Porter and Guinness West Indies Porter. In answer to my obvious  "Why now?" question, Nick the Innovation Marketing Manager, leading the group, said that the rise in diversity on the Irish beer scene had not gone unnoticed at Diageo. They saw it as an opportunity to play a little, to try something that wouldn't have worked before but could be worth a go. Those of us still lamenting the premature death of the St. James's Gate beers know all about Guinness projects that were tragically ahead of their time.

There are two principal features of the new venture, explained to us when we left the plush surrounds of the Director's Dining Room and donned our protective goggles for entering the pilot brewery: one is that the pilot plant itself plays a central role in creating the beers; the second is that the Guinness archive is also pivotal, providing inspiration for the brewers designing the beers. These are the messages we see again and again in the marketing surrounding the new products: brewers given freedom to create, and a taste of authentic history. The problem is that both concepts are paper thin and disintegrate disappointingly after a mere moment's scrutiny.

Let's take the historical side of things first. An archivist was on hand to show us the logs which were directly relevant to the two new beers, or rather, how they're marketed. One log was from 1796, the earliest to show porter being brewed by Guinness. The other was dated 1801, when Guinness began brewing porter for export, a recipe which evolved into today's Foreign Extra Stout. Gearóid, one of the brewers gathered round  with us, pointed to the figures for hopping, saying that they were much higher than you'd have today. I've read enough Ron to know that's par for the course, but also that no 1796 porter would be anywhere near as weak as the 3.8% ABV of the new one. So what gives? It's an influence on the recipes, say the men from Diageo, an inspiration. But where did the basic specs come from, the original gravity and so on? Oh they were just handed down from above, same as every beer. These porters conform rigidly to modern Guinness ingredients and methods.

I'm not having a go at Diageo for not making Pattinsonian clones of beers in their logs. They are entitled to make what they like. I do, however, think presenting them as any way historically associated was a mistake -- something that will mislead most customers and just irritate the ones who look a bit further into it.

It's all neatly illustrated by the posters which began to appear a couple of weeks ago, ahead of the launch of the beers in Ireland. Try Our New Beer From 1796 / 1801 they exclaim. You have to look at your feet to spot the small print:
That's a lot less fun and I wonder what the point of the whole thing is. A beer that sort-of has some influences from an older one isn't a thrilling window into the past, but nor is it an exciting new recipe. It looks like a brewery wanting my attention but offering nothing to hold it.

The 10hL brewhouse
And then there's the pilot brewery itself. You'll have noticed it on your way along James's Street, its delivery shutter two storeys up the wall on the outside. There are a pair of brewhouses inside: a one hectolitre, fanciest-homebrew-kit-you've-ever-seen, and a ten hectolitre kit, originally installed in the late 1990s to brew the "St. James's Gate" range of proto-craft beers but still very shiny and well looked after. It could be the brewery of any small-to-medium microbrewery, except there's a cereal cooker at the start for adjuncts, and a pasteuriser at the end: St. James's Gate is a totally sterile plant, no beer leaves alive, not even the made-for-destruction test batches.

It's the only pilot brewery in the globe-spanning Diageo empire and it has the job of testing all the ingredients that arrive, be it a new crop of sorghum for use in Nigeria or a fresh batch of foam stabiliser from Kerry. One of the FVs was marked as containing a test run of Tusker, several had the last runs from the former Smithwick's brewery in Kilkenny inside.

The pilot also does recipe development. Every Diageo beer starts life on the small kit, then gets reproduced on the 10hL one. If successful, an Irish recipe graduates to the brand new main brewhouse where Guinness stout comes through 1,000hL at a time, though half-sized batches are often done for other beers and, Gearóid says, they can bring the quantity down to 350hL if they absolutely need to. And the new beers are no exception: both were scaled up through the pilot brewery but the beer you drink came from the industrial-sized facility.

The 1hL brewhouse
I've seen several references to The Brewers Project as "craft beer", or an attempt thereat, by the makers of Guinness. Everyone I met inside St. James's Gate denied that this is what it's supposed to be, and I completely believe them that their intention isn't to fake small-batch, artisan Guinness. But they can't possibly not have noticed that, with all the mention of the pilot kit and the men who work there, and the emphasis on the human input into the product design while totally ignoring the economic aspect, that "craft Guinness" was a perception bound to result. And again that anyone who saw the details of what's actually happening would be disappointed.

Eleven paragraphs on a brewery's marketing is not how I roll normally. But The Brewers Project fascinates me, albeit in a slightly morbid way. That said, the opportunity to look into the Diageo brewing process and see a whole new yet familiar side of brewing is something I'm hugely grateful for -- a big thanks to Julie and Ruth from WHPR for masterminding the event, and the Diageo team for showing us round. I'm hoping it's the beginning of a new era of glasnost initiated by the taciturn Dublin 8 monolith.

We did get a small taster of the two beers when we visited. My first impression of both was that they're very similar to existing Guinness products: Dublin Porter thin and crisp like Guinness Extra Stout while the caramel and mild sourness of West Indies Porter lit up the receptors in my brain which enjoy Guinness Foreign Extra Stout but left them craving the weight and complexity that Foreign Extra delivers at 7.5% ABV which West Indies lacks at a mere 6%. I had to wait until last weekend and the release of the bottles on the Irish market to get my hands on them and do a proper taste test.

Guinness special editions tasting very similar to each other is something I'm used to. Anyone who worked through the Brewhouse Series almost a decade ago may remember. But the brewers I met at St. James's Gate are adamant that all the beers are radically different from each other, even the Brewhouse Series. The amount of aroma Goldings added to West Indies Porter is off the charts for a Guinness beer enthused Gearóid, and again I believe him. I just could not smell that for myself. "Could the common taste be down to the Essence?" I asked, referring to the soured syrup that Diageo produces to give all Guinness worldwide a signature flavour. Gearóid's answer was a phrase I have never heard on a brewery tour before: "We don't talk about that."

And so down to business. A blind triangle tasting of both beers and what I regard as their respective close cousins. Could I tell them apart, and which are better?

The six 100ml glasses of 10°C beer in front of me were a uniform black with barely any difference despite the weakest being half the strength of the strongest. I figured head colour would be a dead giveaway so they were carefully poured with no foam showing. A first go through the set showed clearly which were the strong three and which the weak three, but there was nothing else obvious.

Picking the odd one out from the weaker three was almost impossible: it was just glass after glass of watery fizz. I tried drinking them in different sequences, pausing for water between them, and running through them in quick succession but it was very difficult to spot any distinguishing features. Going past the wateriness, and letting the beer warm and flatten a bit, I started getting hints of chocolate and a green vegetal complexity, just shading towards metal. This was in all three but I half-guessed that I could taste it a tiny bit less in one of the three so I marked that as Guinness Extra Stout and the other two as Dublin Porter, and I was correct.

Interestingly, as I finished off the leftovers once the challenge was over and the beers had been sitting out a while, I found that the Extra Stout got more full-flavoured as it approached room temperature: your classic large-bottle-off-the-shelf. The Dublin Porter did not, however, staying as thin and dull as when first taken from the cooler. So, if faced with a choice of just Dublin Porter and Extra Stout which to pick? I now appreciate that there is a mildly stronger flavour in cool Dublin Porter, but the emphasis is on mild there. But warmer Extra Stout was a revelation: I never would have guessed there would be such an appreciable difference between 3.8% ABV and 4.2% ABV, but that extra 0.4 really does add heft. Room temperature Guinness Extra Stout remains the company's best session-strength option.

The stronger set was easier. One of my glasses contained a hot 'n' heavy sour coffee and caramel madman, the other two a more gently sour, roastier beer with an added metallic edge. It wasn't too much of a reach to guess that the former was Foreign Extra and the latter West Indies Porter. And it's not just the alcohol difference that gave it away. I was on alert for those bonus Goldings that Gearóid had mentioned and though there was no sign at all of them in the aroma (all six smelled of damn all), there was a discernible crunchy green cabbage flavour behind the signature sour Guinnessy tang. I've tasted English hops doing that before, especially when in quantity.

I stand by my initial impression that West Indies Porter does have much in common with Foreign Extra, but this test proved that it is markedly different from it, though I wouldn't at all say that it's an improvement, apart from the bottle size. The next phase of the test should be to determine whether a half litre serving of West Indies Porter delivers more pleasure than 33cl of Foreign Extra Stout, but I think these beers have already taken up enough of my time and your screen.

All four beers are unmistakably Guinness and I think I'll have to agree to disagree with the Diageo bods on whether this is a strength or a flaw. In the microbrewing sector it's commonplace to hear of a company recruiting a brewer who has Guinness experience. While visiting James's Gate I took the opportunity to ask if the reverse happens: do brewers from Irish micros ever take jobs with them? The answer was no. While there's a certain amount of cross-pollination between the big industrial multinationals, nothing from the craft side. I think the result of this inward-looking philosophy can be tasted in these new beers, and every other Guinness brand extension where the consumer complains that it's not different enough. To the brewers and execs for whom Guinness represents archetypal porter perfection honed over centuries these variations are an audacious victory, instilling the quintessence of the brand in a radically different host body. This stout drinker thinks they should get out more.

(For more longer-than-usual blog posts about beer from a variety of authors, check in with Boak and Bailey this Saturday and follow their #beerylongreads project.)

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.