Easter weekend once again brings the centrepiece of the Irish beer calendar at the Franciscan Well in Cork. This year, the Easter Festival featured 13 guest breweries from around Ireland, including newcomers 8 Degrees, based in nearby Mitchelstown.
The company is the result of a trans-Tasman détente between Aussie Cam (right) and Kiwi Scott, playfully branded and with big plans for its entry into the market proper. The primary product will be 33cl bottles of three different beers, most likely sold by the six-pack. It's not a standard method of beer delivery for Ireland and it'll be interesting to see how it pans out. There will also be draught, and the first to arrive on tap is Howling Gale, a blonde ale hopped up on Chinook, Centennial and Amarillo. Aren't there a bazillion craft beers like this in Ireland already? Well, yes and no. At 5% ABV, Howling Gale is weightier than most, with a full wheaty body, despite the absence of wheat. It's arguable how well it'll work as a sessioner, given those extra few strength points above most by-the-pint beers, but I can see it performing in the 33cls as long as they get the pricing right. Its other distinguishing feature is the lack of filtering. Only the finest of haze is visible and it more than pays its way with the extra citrus flavours being delivered. Howling Gale is a promising start for the new brewery, and its unusual vital statistics could well be the beginning of a new spin on the craft beer revolution in these parts.
While I'm banging on about filtering, a word on Galaxy Pale Ale, brewed by Trouble as the grand prize in their Trouble Maker competition last year, the winning recipe provided by Rossa O'Neill. You can read his account of his day at the brewery here. I liked the finished product, honest I did: a gorgeous shade of garnet, super-light cask-like carbonation, a firm bitterness and a subtle biscuity follow-up. But I couldn't help feeling there should be more to it, that a fruit and citrus contribution from the hops should be at the centre of the flavour but has been stripped out by the evil filter. No amount of limpid sparkling beauty can make up for a beer that has been gutted like this. If the flavour is bold enough to cover any yeasty tang -- as is the case with most any of these US-style Irish pale ales -- I don't see why the beer can't be cloudy. Rant over; comments welcome.
A smooth and calming glass of stout next, and my first try of Dungarvan's special edition Coffee and Oatmeal Stout. Cormac tells me the recipe is very different from Black Rock, but I couldn't help but notice the similarities, a function of cask's tendency to smooth out distinctive flavours, I reckon. Anyway, it's a rock-solid stout, well-balanced between roasted dryness and plummy fruit esters. I couldn't say I was able to pick out the coffee, but I'm guessing the dry aspects of it were down to this in some measure.
I had a good natter with Seamus and Liam from the ever-expanding Carlow Brewing Company. Liam has begun a series of smoked beers in half-batch runs, and the first example was on their bar at the weekend. O'Hara's Smoked Ale No. 1 is a reddish-brown bitter, with chocolate malt in the ascendant plus hints of raisins. The smoke infuses this with a subtle kippery tang. A few fellow-drinkers were hard pressed to identify this as smoke but it was familiar to me from my own experiments with rauchmalz. Liam was a little disappointed that it didn't come out smokier, expecting more of a bang for the substantial bucks the brewery spent on the speciality grain. The frustration looks like it may well lead to some messing about with peated malt later in the series: then we'll be talking serious smoke. Can't wait.
After many years of sharing a bar, Messrs Maguire were totally separate from former host White Gypsy at this year's festival, serving two beers that Melissa brewed in Dublin herself, plus the sublime leftovers of Barrelhead's Franciscan Well-brewed Pale Ale: eight months old and tasting fabulous, like Harvey's Best on steroids. Meanwhile, White Gypsy was twinned with its new protégé Metalman, making their first appearance at the Easter Festival with their second beer: Windjammer, on cask. Three different New Zealand hops have gone into this (Pacifica, Southern Cross and Nelson Sauvin) and the result is a punchily bitter pale ale which calms down quickly, presenting the palate with a basket of pineapples, mangoes and nectarines. I only had a half, but I want more. Once the palate has adjusted to the bitterness, I'd say the second pint is a marvel. Hopefully I won't have to wait too long to find out.
My final bit of scooping was at the UCC Pilot Brewery bar, once again giving it the whole Teutonic thing, with pretzels, dirndls and Tyrolean hats. Inevitably, the beers were a lager and a weizen, though it doesn't look like much work has gone into the names: Traditional Bavarian Beer (an alleged Oktoberfestbier) and Fruity Wheat Beer. The latter really doesn't look like much on coming out of the tap: murky brown and headless, but as I may have said before, how a beer looks doesn't matter. There's a lovely spice to it alongside the bananas, putting it in the same general end of the weizen spectrum as Schneider-Weisse and that's definitely a good thing. A bit more condition would have lifted these great flavours a bit more, however. The lager was another fruity one: miles and miles from any helles or Oktoberfestbier I've tasted, other than those you sometimes find in wonky brewpubs. Still tasty, though, and clean enough to stay drinkable and refreshing.
Trade had been brisk from the moment the doors opened and the festival yard was jammed by 8pm when I left for my train. It would have been nice to go back and spend another leisurely afternoon pinting my way round the plethora of summery beers I'd been sampling, but that'll have to wait until someone (anyone?) more local to me starts running a great event like this. In the meantime, thanks as usual goes to the Franciscan Well team and the 13 visiting breweries for making it all happen.