It was all a bit compact-and-bijou at The Franciscan Well for the Easter Festival this year. The rambling village of brewery bars that in recent years threatened to take over the yard completely if left unchecked was pruned back somewhat for 2012. No representation from regulars Hilden and Barrelhead, while Beoir Chorca Duibhne, Messrs Maguire and the hosts were relegated to taps on the main pub bar inside. It did leave the space less cramped than last year, and of course there was still plenty of beer choice.
But before I get on to that, a few words about one of the absentees. I caught up with Messrs Maguire Olympic Gold in its home pub in Dublin last week. This new seasonal is certainly, well, gold: a darkish shade thereof, shading to amber. Though billed as a golden ale it's very highly attenuated and feels quite lagerlike, its dominant crispness given extra bite from the strong carbonation. The only nod towards aledom that I detected is a slight bubblegum aftertaste, but it's nearly not there. It would be a decent if unexciting summer refresher were it not for a rising disinfectant tang which started small but built quite quickly as I chugged my pint.
Right, back to Cork then. It goes without saying that as well as fewer breweries than usual, there were no newcomers either. A shame, since I'm aware of at least a couple of new operations on the way, including a second brewpub in Cork city itself. Still, these things can't be rushed.
We'd met Scott from Eight Degrees in the nearby Bierhalle just before showtime, where we both tore into the fantastic full Irish they serve. Eight Degrees were launching their new Barefoot pilsner. It's not yet bottled so arrived to Franciscan Well straight from the lagering tanks, unfiltered and not quite fully carbed. And lovely it was too, displaying that wonderful soft biscuit sweetness one gets in good pils, balanced by an almost metallic tang from the hops. It could possibly do with more pronounced hopping, but maybe we'll get that with the fizz.
The people who didn't have a lager, shockingly, was the UCC pilot brewery. Though they abandoned cold-fermentation they didn't abandon their teutonic stylings completely. Moritz was billed as a pale ale but the description of it fell back into the German vernacular with mention of a Kölsch influence on the recipe. It was certainly the correct shade of wan yellow and had a decent crispness to it, but also a jarring slap of butterscotch too which made it tough drinking after the first few seconds. Describing this as "honey" in the tasting notes was a game effort, but didn't leave me any better disposed towards it.
Moritz's brother beer Max was a down-home weiss and it showed that the brewers were on much more familiar ground with this style. A biggish 5.8% ABV but slipping down easily, fresh and fruity with sinus-clearing clove flavours. You could have mistaken it for Schneider Weisse were it not for the golden colour.
In Dublin we tend to think of Galway Hooker as a bit of a one-trick pale ale pony, though it is a fine trick and performed well. Over on the left-hand coast, however, there are a couple more strings to Aidan and Ronan's brewing bow. An earlier experiment with the dunkel weiss style appears to have been regularised into Opus II. This came from the cask at The Franciscan Well and presented as a murky muddy dark brown affair. The weissbier sweetness was transformed into milk chocolate, rendered extra smooth by cask conditioning. A pleasant dash of dry roast hits the back of the palate and is followed by a totally unexpected bitter kick from the hops. I'm not sure how sessionable this would be, but as the first dark beer of the day a half was very welcome.
Also on the Hooker bar was Nectar, an amber ale brewed as the house beer for Tigh Neachtain in Galway City. Allegedly influenced by Samuel Adams Boston Lager, I thought of it more as a dark Hooker. Yes there's a toffee hit up front, but it's followed by a very clear and quite assertive hop tang. The two combine beautifully. While not as full-on as the best American amber ale I was very happy with this and would love to see it given a wider distribution. It will certainly get me through the doors of Neachtain's next time I'm in Galway.
Mark was cutting a fatherly figure by the Trouble Brewing bar when I arrived in, doting on his winning recipe for Spelt Saison. I had a taste of the homemade version when the competition was being judged and Paul at Trouble has got the scaling-up pretty much bang on. The light sour bite is there, created by the tandem action of greedy saison yeast plus a whack of real grapefruit. Generous hopping removes any claims that could be made for fidelity to the saison style, but I don't imagine anyone who drank it cared. There's a little bit of grainy warmth in the background and I can't help thinking this summer refresher would be better with keg carbonation to lift it. Either way, I've never tasted anything like it from an Irish brewery and it proves how vital it is to take homebrew recipes and produce them on a commercial scale. Vital.
Across the way we had something new quirky and fun from Team Metalman. Chameleon is, at the basic level, a light and summery blonde ale, though packing a well-hidden wallop of 5% ABV. The unique selling point, and reason for the name, is that the casks have each had something extra added to them. On Saturday afternoon Chameleon Pacifica was pouring, one that had a gorgeous Opal Fruit juiciness from the New Zealand hops. It was next to the 2012 edition of Windjammer, darker than last year's and similarily Kiwitastic, but with some bonus light caramel. Tragically I missed smoked chilli Chameleon and hope it'll come my way at some point.
I was starting to get antsy with the thought of sinking a cool pint of Dungarvan Comeragh Challenger at this stage, but there was one last tick to be ticked. And I'm glad I didn't miss it. White Gypsy was serving, among others, Red Oak, a 4% ABV blend of two malt-forward dark styles -- Irish red ale and Belgian-style bruin -- which was then dry-hopped. What? Why would you...? Oh. Oh wow. The result is a lightly astringent fruity quencher, brimming with delicious tannins. Irish red meets English mild, with all the complex flavour and extreme drinkability of the latter. A beauty of a beer and not to be missed. But I didn't follow my half with a pint. The Challenger had dibs first.
And so it was back home on the 8.30 train, with some Eight Degrees bottles Reuben had managed to charm out of Scott. Much appreciated, both.
Sometimes the explosion of beer specialist pubs in Dublin (another one opened on Amiens Street yesterday) makes me question the need to travel to out-of-town festivals for beer in the first place. But even with a limited showing, the Franciscan Well Easter Festival offers a reminder that there's no substitute for a yard full of brewers and their wares.