03 July 2015

All about the content

Session logoEverything but the beer is the preferred topic for The Session this month. Host Jack is asking us to look at the odds and ends that go with: beermats, bottle caps and the like. One brewery with a very distinctive look to its packaged beers is Stone of San Diego and it's one of theirs that's the subject of my contribution.

This bottle of Xocoveza was kindly donated by Chris and Merideth on their recent visit to Ireland. There's nothing too unusual about the shape of the bottle: it's your standard American 650ml bomber. But they've made great use of the space it affords to tell the convoluted story of this beer.

Its roots lie in Stone's annual home brewing competition which in 2014 was won by Chris Banker, so that's his name you see emblazoned across the top of the main printed space. His recipe is an 8.1% ABV milk stout brewed with added coffee and spices, intended to recreate the effect of Mexican hot chocolate. The dense wording on the back introduces the drinker to everything they're about to experience, with quotes from the creator as well as Mitch Steele from Stone and the brewer at Cerveceria Insurgente, the Tijuana outfit which also participated in the brew.

The beer itself is heavy on the nutmeg, with a real Christmas-cookie effect, made extra sweet by the lactose sugar. Bitterness from the dark chocolate and strong coffee is fleetingly perceptible behind it. The only other pieces of entertainment it affords are the luxuriously smooth texture and a cheeky pinch of chilli in the aroma. It's not a subtle beer, nor as multifaceted as the list of additional ingredients on the front might imply, but it's fun to drink if you don't take the grimacing gargoyle on the neck too seriously.

And if you have a complaint, you'll find ways to contact the brewery on the underside of the bottle cap:

01 July 2015

Double Scotch

Scotch ales (by which I mean nothing more than beers designated as such by their brewers) are rare in Ireland. I guess the standard Irish red already covers a lot of what Scotch ale is meant to do. It just so happens that two Irish breweries have recently launched beers they're calling Scotch ales so I think a bit of side-by-side is in order. Though since both are confined to their breweries' tied houses it'll have to be a virtual one.

JW Sweetman Scotch Ale is the younger of the two having been out only a few weeks and receiving its official launch last Thursday. It's 5.6% ABV -- strong enough for the brewery to describe it as a "wee heavy" -- and appropriately dark red. It's very sweet: laying on the toffee in a big way, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Probing my palate for a second sentence to write about the flavour, I found maybe a hint of ripe strawberry and a lightly acidic finish, but that's your lot. I thought it was going to be a hard one to finish but a second freebie pint at the launch event disappeared much faster than the first, so maybe it's the sort of beer one can settle into.

The second one has been available for several months now: Galway Bay's Respect Yer Elders. A cask version does the rounds occasionally but it was on keg when I found it at The Beer Market. It's a similar red-brown to the Sweetman one, though rather lighter in alcohol at 4.5%. And while still very much malt-forward it's nowhere near as sweet, showing lots of quite dry grain husk and then chocolatey bourbon biscuit at the centre. The best feature is a subtle metallic hop tang right on the finish, adding hugely to its drinkability. I'm still not sure it's one I'd drink a lot of, but cold from the keg it proved a lot more approachable than I expected. I can imagine it being a bit much on cask, though.

Neither of these has turned me into an avowed Scotch ale fanatic, but a bit of variety is always nice.

29 June 2015

Next to godliness

This was intended to be a general round-up of some recently-released Irish beers, but as I've put the notes together I've noticed an unfortunate theme linking them. Folks, we need to talk about yeast bite.

The first offender was the much-anticipated new one from N17, Summer Ale, brewed at Reel Deel in Mayo. Oddly, the dark-amber beer was perfectly clear but the yeast twang was unmistakeable: a big savoury earthy thing spreading itself indecently over everything else. There are hops just about perceptible inside, tiny sparks of citrus, but really it's a weighty, flabby beast of a beer, not the light summer refresher I was expecting. Oh well, these things happen, I thought. I'm sure the next beer will suit me better.

And I was hugely looking forward to the third in Trouble Brewing's series of SMASH beers: the first two having been among my favourite offerings of the year to date. Vic Secret SMASH (co-starring Vienna malt) could only be a hit. But no. Now, maybe it's the bitterness that's bothering me most here: it is very sharply acidic, to the point of acridity. There's some pleasant spicy oranges in the aroma, but seconds after the first sip I found the harsh yeast flavour rising to dominate everything else, killing the nuances and leaving just the savoury fuzz and acid burn. I brought these observations to the attention of my peers in the pub last week and the consensus was that I'm talking through my hole as regards yeast bite in this beer. Seemingly it's a veritable hoppy delight as far as everyone else concerned. Yeast bitten or not, it's not a beer for me.

Until this theme emerged I wasn't planning to even write about Voyager US, a new IPA from Galway Bay. I didn't enjoy the glass of it I had and I thought I'd let it pass as I've written about the original Voyager before. And the fault, once again, was that gritty yeast effect. I see that a dissenting opinion was offered by the Destrier who found perfumey tropical fruit in there, but I didn't.

Buttinski yeast was something I also found in Kinnegar's Hilly Head Belgian-inspired "Farmhouse Red Ale". I guess I was expecting something clean, sharp and Rodenbach-like, even at 6.5% ABV, but what I got instead was a dense, warming beer closer to a dubbel with its plums and blackcurrants, but with interference from the earthy yeast as well. I like the aroma, though: an autumnal waft of damp orchards and ripe red berries, but you just don't get the same delicacy and nuance on tasting and I blame the yeast for that. Centrifuges for all!

I'm seeking redemption, finally, in a new Irish beer that tastes of yeast and means it: RadikAles's second offering Rubenesque Dubbel, bottle kindly supplied by the real-life Belgian Alain who brewed it at 9 White Deer. It's pale for the style, a clear garnet rather than brown, and the head doesn't hang about long. But visuals aside, this is bang-on perfect. There's a veritable old-fashioned sweetshop in the flavour, all liquorice, butterscotch and kola nut with a pinch of menthol, then liberally coated in unctuous yeast esters adding mushy banana and similar heady ripe fruit. I was skeptical of the decision to package it in a half litre bottle but the lightness of the body and perfectly balanced flavours make it surprisingly pintable, even if the carbonation is a tad high. Fans of the figgier, plummier sort of dubbel may be disappointed but it still hits plenty of classic abbey notes.

Returning to the main gripe of this post, am I wrong that too many Irish breweries are letting yeast get in the way of their beers' better features? Is it just a sensitivity of mine, or perhaps an over-sensitivity caused by too many Lilt-a-like juicy pale ales? I'm definitely not one of the Death To Murk brigade, but if you're going release your beer au naturel I'd prefer something to cover up that yeasty soupiness.

26 June 2015

Another look

It's three and half hours on the train from Dublin to Killarney. For the journey I brought some beers that had been sitting neglected in my fridge, to combine leisurely train-drinking with putting a dent in my review backlog. Win-win. All three are from the range Marston's produces for Tesco.

First up, Revisionist Pacific Hop Red Ale, 4.2% ABV and promising Waimea and Pacific Gem hops. It's more copper than gold. Maybe rose gold if you're feeling charitable. There's a waft of vegetal hops on the nose suggesting the Kiwi varieties are a bit of a token effort but really this is an English ale to the bone. My theory is borne up by the flavour too. An assertive metallic bitterness opens its account, seguing swiftly to a dry tannic finish. I wasn't expecting a brown bitter but having been presented with one I quite enjoyed it, though I'll admit I shed a tear for what those New Zealand hops could have been in a different recipe.

To follow, Revisionist American Hop Rye Pale Ale. This time the claim is that Amarillo and Citra are the signature aroma hops but there's more of an earthy Cascade smell I reckon. Not that that's a bad thing. Crystal malt toffee looms large in the flavour though the body is light and it stays drinkable, which is appropriate at 4.3% ABV. But the hops are right at the centre of the taste, albeit in an understated, mannerly way. There's more of that metallic bitterness but some brighter peach and mandarin notes too. Overall a rather simple, fun and undemanding session pale ale.

Transferring at Mallow and on to Revisionist Dark India Pale Ale. It's not quite pure black, but close, with just a reddish cast to it. The aroma isn't up to much but there's a nice balance in the flavour between mild grapefruit hops (Chinook and Citra, says the label) and chocolate and caramel dark malt. The bitterness is low, but no harm. Simple, smooth, sweet and rather tasty. Full bodied too, for just 4.8% ABV.

I liked these. There are no flaws in their construction and a definite effort has been made both at offering something different to the supermarket shopper and explaining to them what makes it different. Dark IPAs and rye pale ales suggest that gateway beers are coming along in leaps and bounds.

24 June 2015

Birthday treats

My previous post covered the new (to me) beers available at the Killarney Beer Festival at the beginning of the month. But obviously any big international gathering of beer nerds like this is going to include the occasional sideshow. This post is about a handful of other beers that I encountered that weekend.

It started on the train down where the redoubtable Mr Lamond was passing around a bomber of Southern Tier's Mokah, a 10% ABV chocolate/coffee imperial stout. It was pretty hard going: extremely sweet and with that slightly sweaty taste you get from elderly lukewarm filter coffee, plus nasty wet cardboard. The flatness and massive hot booze effect did nothing for its drinkability either. Maybe the serving conditions weren't ideal for a fair assessment but I doubt I'd be running back to it again. Still, thanks for the tick Steve!

For my part I was carrying a beer that sometime visitor to Ireland from Israel Mr Tom Lahav had brought particularly for Steve's attention. I opened it on one of the festival evenings as things were winding down. It appears not to even have a name on it but seems to mostly go by Tuborg 6.7%. This was brewed by Carlsberg's Israeli arm in Ashkelon to celebrate 67 years of Israeli independence in 2014. And it's a pretty decent malt-forward alt-like dark lager: bourbon biscuit as the main flavour feature, a very slight burnt roast dryness and a nicely crisp finish. Maybe it's just the name, but it does remind me a little of Tuborg's classic Julebryg, though perhaps a little less sweet. Cheers Tom!

On the roster of official festival business was Beoir's commemoration of the European Beer Consumers Union's 25th birthday. EBCU headquarters has issued a 3L jeroboam of St Feuillien Tripel to each of the 13 member organisations, to open at an event of their choosing during 2015. I was there when Poland popped the cork on its bottle last April in Łódź but only realised after the event that I had no notes on the actual beer. I wasn't going to miss out in Ireland. And it's an absolute classic of a Belgian tripel: that perfect combination of floral honey sweetness and piquant yeast spicing with no trace of heat even at 9% ABV and served at ambient temperature. Those who look deep in search of complexity will find traces of aniseed and coconut oils too. It's a great beer for celebrating the drinkers who celebrate the brewer's art.

The Mokah wasn't the only beer I drank on the train to Killarney, however...

Carl Kins (EBCU Executive) pours for Reuben Gray (Beoir Chairman)

22 June 2015

To the Kingdom

Ireland got a major new addition to its beer calendar this month with the first Killarney Beerfest, staged by the experienced events organisers of the Irish National Entertainment Centre at the Gleneagle Hotel. The sun mostly shone, trade was quite brisk among the tents and the live entertainment was excellent. Saturday saw an all-star team of international judges put 81 of Ireland's microbrewed beers through a rigorous judging process, with young James Brown taking the grand prize for his Chocolate Orange Stout. But I did a bit of unofficial judging myself too...

First and foremost, Black Donkey's Buck-It comes off the naughty step. This beer really rubbed me up the wrong way back in February, but a switch from a neutral American yeast to something a little more estery has taken those pointy, musty edges off it and given it a smooth rounded fruity character. Well worth a re-visit if you were similarly unimpressed previously. The Roscommon brewery was also pouring a new one: Scythe, a 4.6% ABV... er... well I'm not sure what style category it belongs in. I suppose pale ale is a start: it's a murky orange colour and the aroma is pure peach flesh. That fresh and zippy New World hop thing extends to the flavour but it's joined there by a very Belgian yeast spice. If I recall correctly, this uses the same yeast as Black Donkey's Sheep Stealer saison so possibly could count as the same style. Either way, it's a very fine hoppy sessioner.

Sticking with them peaches for a moment, Black's of Kinsale had a new Pils on tap: slightly hazy but still properly clean-tasting and with a subtle sprinkling of peach and mandarin flavours. It's done with US hops but really put me in mind of those mouthwatering Australian varieties they have now. Overall this is a decent, but not shocking, re-imagining of quaffing lager.

From lager to stout and a second beer from County Limerick's only brewery, JJ's. Abbey Stout is a roasty one, vaguely sweet but pouring on more of the dry notes. There's not much other complexity but then at 4.2% ABV I guess there's not supposed to be.

Jack Doyle's beer is rarely seen outside its native Wexford so I was delighted to find it at the festival. Jack Doyle's Premium Stout is another straightforward one: 4.2% ABV and served on nitro. Its special move is a lovely whack of chocolate and cocoa right in the heart of the soft, smooth texture. This is plainly designed to take the big boys on and I'd certainly pick it when faced with that choice. I'm a little less convinced by Proper Order, a pale ale at the same strength. Like the stout, it's simple and drinkable with no brewing flaws, but it's much more of an Irish red than a hop-forward pale ale. Sure, it's a pale amber colour rather than red, but the light body, the toffee, and the low-impact hops all say something other than pale ale to me. But again, in a pub with nothing better, I'd be content.

Local boys Killarney Brewing also malted up their Scarlet Pimpernel IPA. It's very nearly red and decidedly sweet, justified by a pleasant buzz of orange sherbet though let down in the finish by a harsher medicinal note. Some sort of phenolic invader, perhaps? Nothing like that in the stout though. Casey Brothers is yet another easy-going nitro job, though it does make good use of its extra strength at 5% ABV: there's a creamy richness plus a mild hint of blackcurrant right on the finish.

Neighbours Torc Brewing have been a little more adventurous with their newest offerings. Torc Wheat Beer doesn't sound that off-the-wall, especially at just 4.2% ABV, but they've used Cascade and Centennial hops to add a juicy citrus bang without losing the classic bubblegum sweetness. There's a decently full body for the lower strength too. Torc Amber Ale is a tiny bit stronger but less hoppy too. If Proper Order and Scarlet Pimpernel had Irish Red qualities, this tips over into that style fully. There's a dusting of red fruit, more than a hint of toffee, and a clean mineral quality that stops it from getting too sweet. But disappointingly little by way of hops.

Two pale ales to go out on. The first is The Dreamer, a summer seasonal from O Brother and based on their regular The Fixer, with the ABV dialled down a notch to 4.3%. It's pale and hazy, the Willamette hops imparting bright floral flavours but with a more punchy playful bitterness on the end. There is a bit of a bleachy bum note spoiling things a little: I guess something this light leaves no place for such off-flavours to hide, but at least the beer's merits aren't obscured by this flaw.

My beer of the weekend, however, was the new Eight Degrees summer seasonal Grand Stretch. Created with the needs of the brewery workers in mind, this is just (again!) 4.2% ABV but jam-packed with Vic Secret hops. A grassy, resinous spice bumps up against classic New World mango and nectarine leaving no doubt that this beer is all about the delicious, refreshing, fresh hops. Yet it's not overly bitter and nor is it thin: the body is full enough to carry everything that's happening. Complex hop-forward session beers of this quality are all too rare in Ireland. It's great to meet another one.

Killarney may not be the biggest or geekiest of beer festivals in Ireland but it's one of the most enjoyable I've ever attended (living on-site for the duration may have something to do with that) and the setting amid the majestic Kerry scenery really adds spectacle to it. Keep and eye out for the announcement of next year's dates.

18 June 2015

A walk in the park

June Bank Holiday, as usual, brought the Bloom in the Park festival to Dublin. I hadn't been in several years but organisers Bord Bia very kindly sent me a couple of tickets so on the mostly-sunny Saturday morning I set off for Phoenix Park.

Bloom is first and foremost a garden festival, the centrepiece being artily constructed miniature gardens, vying for medals and a grand prize. Courtesy dictates that a token wander around this bit is mandatory before hitting the beer tent, but this year there was something specific I wanted to see: "Saison", a garden put together by Breffni McGeough with help from brewer Alex Lawes and incorporating a nanobrewery. And a couple of comfy deckchairs, obviously. Very cute, and it's great to see beer culture leaking out of the bubble occasionally.

To the Bloom Inn, then. The 2015 iteration wasn't quite as much fun as 2011's randomly deflating space domes, but leagues ahead of 2010's A Small Tent With Some Beer. It felt like a real festival, with a crowd still consisting of mainly the uninitiated, but with plenty of converted beer enthusiasts too. A dozen or so brewers and cider-makers pitched up, plus a handful of the new wave of Irish distilleries.

There were two beers I hadn't tasted before on offer. The first I noticed on entering was Wicklow Wolf's Arcadia, a straight-up Kölsch clone. Only the smoothness of cask serve is missing from the replication. It's a bright, rich gold and offers mouthfuls of crisp and crunchy grain backed by quite assertive waxy German hops. It may be top fermented but there is a spring-water cleanness to the profile as a reminder that Kölsch, done properly, really is a lager. Arcadia will do a number on more than a few thirsts this summer, I'd say.

Putting clean and understated to one side, we move to the Carlow Brewing stand. Last year we were promised a sequence of amber ales using different national hop varieties, under the "Amber Adventure" label. We're only now seeing a second outing, and a slight shifting of the goalposts. O'Hara's Hop Adventure Sorachi Ace is an IPA, for one thing, and a pale one at that. All you really need to know is that it tastes of Sorachi Ace in a big way, and it's up to you whether that's a recommendation or a warning. I enjoyed it, though. It's all oily coconut and lemon meringue pie, the pie effect accentuated by a light biscuity malt flavour. Other breweries who have made beer like this (Kiuchi's Nipponia springs to mind) have tended to pile on the alcohol to counter the hop pungency. I like that this one, at just 5% ABV, doesn't put anything in their way.

More summer festival fun to come next week.