Now we're cooking! The alternatives to standard pubby Irish beer are finally coming out of the woodwork lately -- and in one case, literally. Following after Franciscan Well's big 'n' balanced Shandon Century come two more, from different breweries, with ABVs circling double figures, and both carrying the promise of more like this.
Irish brewing seems to have grown a pair at last. One of them's black and the other is blonde.
White Gypsy Belgian Blond appeared suddenly on the bar at the Bull & Castle in early January. At 8.4% ABV I was expecting a fairly straight Duvel or La Chouffe clone, but that's not what I got. It's completely clear for one thing and, while fruity, is much cleaner than the other two. I found out later that it was done with a saison yeast strain which has chomped through the heavy sugars leaving behind cool refreshing apricot and lychee notes. There's an invigorating, almost lambic-like tartness up front, finishing dry and with a heady perfumey ambergris aroma throughout. It's very drinkable and there's no sign of all that alcohol. Digestible, as the Belgians would have it.
And the good news is that this isn't the end of it. Cuilán says there's more in the tank and the plan is to release them little by little and see how they change. Keep watching the taps at the Bull & Castle.
Meanwhile, down the hill, the third edition of The Porterhouse's Celebration imperial stout showed up on tap in their Temple Bar branch just before Christmas. At 11% ABV it's their strongest yet: the strongest ever Irish beer I can think of. I'm guessing at least some little bit of that is down to the time it has spent aging in a Kilbeggan whiskey barrel.
I had more trouble raising a head on the aged one, while the youngster poured thicker, darker and, oddly, more mature-looking. The aromas are quite distinct: leeks and liquorice on the straight one and lots of woody vanilla, as one might expect, from the Kilbeggan-aged.
A sip of the plain: amazingly smooth, loaded with silky chocolate. A tough act to follow. But the barrel-aged Celebration aces it: a little more sparkly, true, but still sumptuously rich underneath it. The whiskey flavour is pretty full-on, making me think of a sour-mash American job rather than honeyish Irish whiskey. Bags of vanilla too, of course. You have to look for the rest: a woody nuttiness is next in the queue and the chocolate hides under that. The slightly metallic hop tang is just gone. If I were in charge of this recipe, I'd up the hop quotient somewhat.
Later, I called in to the Temple Bar Porterhouse to find it was still on tap. It's not every day you get the opportunity for a full imperial pint of an 11% ABV stout, so that's what I ordered. And that's what leads me to a final word of warning to anyone in possession of a bottle or two of this: serve it off the shelf. Cold from the keg all those lovely barrel flavours just disappear. I was almost finished my pint before I could definitely confirm that it was the same beer.
And the good news, the really good news, is that the label proclaims this to be part of the Porterhouse's "Barrel Aged Collection". We're getting more! I'm told there are sherry and rioja barrels waiting in the wings, but it'll probably be another year before we get to see the results.
With this lot, and the upcoming (it is upcoming, isn't it, Liam?) second in the O'Hara's smoked ale series, things are looking rosy indeed for the future.