Alongside a couple of the new-wave cider producers (McIvor's, Tempted? and Stonewell), some homebrew show-and-tell from the Beoir fermentationists and assorted ancillary food and drink retailers (Pieman Café, I bloody love you), most of the country's independent breweries had a stand. And lots of them were using the event to launch new products or limited specials. Lots of scooping potential, then.
There was one totally new beer brand in the form of Bo Bristle, the Co. Offaly brewery formerly known as BrewEyed. Bo Bristle IPA is the flagship, a big sticky-sweet 5%-er in something of an English vernacular. Lagery golden syrup is the heart, lightly laced with citrus and finishing floral. Bo Bristle continues to brew Carrig under contract and has produced a new beer to go with the pale lager: Rower, an Irish red. Yeah, I know: Irish red, yawn, but it's one of the better ones, with lots of toffee plus a solid hop bite. This extra oomph means it does get a bit heavy as it warms up, but overall a decent take on the style.
The O'Hara's range had two new additions, making appearances on draught: Natural Blonde is a dark golden ale loaded with weighty banana esters, far away from the thinner paler lagerlike blondes one normally sees. O'Hara's Winter Star is their first ever seasonal, a lurid orange-coloured winter ale of 4.3% ABV. Orange peel, cinnamon and coconut provide the excitement here, and while I got a hint of marmalade in the foretaste, the aroma and finish are coconut in a big way. The cinnamon has completely disappeared, and it's light on malt and hops, so a little bit one-dimensional, but simple and interesting.
And much as the new ones from Carlow were the centre of my attention, there was also an oak-aged version of Leann Folláin stout on cask. This was beautiful: massive vanilla wood in the aroma but with plenty of rich and smooth chocolate stout flavours still making themselves felt in the flavour. Great balance and one of the best oak-aged beers I've tasted in a while. Less convincing was one of the American guests at the festival: Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. It's not unpleasant, per se, it just tastes powerfully of whiskey, shooting its 8% alcohol right up the back of the nose. You'd be better off with an actual glass of bourbon, to be honest.
Whitewater were also at the barrel game, with a limited supply of their oak-aged Clotworthy Dobbin for sale in bottles. I sneaked a taste before I purchased and it really lives up to the hype: big Christmas cake flavours with sweet cigar tobacco, all on a very sippable lightish body. From their beer engine there was Down Pilgrim, a new cask ale. The USP here is all-local barley from a neighbouring farmer coupled, as the name suggests, with Pilgrim hops. You get a light-coloured pale ale which begins with a little bit of toasted biscuit, following it up with a sharp bitter finish. One of those sessionable beers with character that are always great to settle into. I wasn't so keen on Whitewater's McHugh's 300, a 3.5% ABV keg blonde brewed for the Botanic Inns chain, a big customer of the brewery's. I found it just too sharp -- pretty much acetic -- to be enjoyable.
From the Odd Experience file, we have my first ever taste of Beal Bán from Beoir Chorca Duibhne. This blonde ale had a weird phenolic twang, and apparently a dash of smoked malt went into the recipe, which would explain things. There's also quite a bang of boozy heat from it, at 5.3% ABV: another golden ale that's anything but bland. And then there was a dry-hopped version of Dungarvan's Copper Coast. You know the ad for Best Western that they show on Dave? Where the brewer says his beer has "A hint of coffee with a nice green apple finish"? That.
Dungarvan provided three of my favourites from the whole gig, as well as a chocolate stout I could take or leave but seemed quite popular. Standout star of the show -- of the festival -- was Rye-PA. Normally I'd run a mile from rye in beer, disliking the harsh grassiness it normally creates. But there's only a hint of that in here, the cloudy orange beer being awash instead with massive succulent nectarine hop flavours. Of course there wasn't enough of it to keep the punters content and both casks sold out soon after being tapped. There were also limited supplies of a 6% ABV IPA which I only got a taste of (thanks Oblivious!), another mouthwatering full and fruity one. And briefly we had an unnamed dark beer with a wonderful bitterness to it. It's one of those where I couldn't tell it was dark when tasting with my eyes closed so could probably be safely badged as a B***k I*A, were the brewery so inclined.
The beer I heard most good reports about was the new one from 8 Degrees, a Märzen called Ochtoberfest: celebrating the number eight and in no way, shape or form connected to any trademarked seasonal German beer event. I was wary at first as it's quite a dark shade of orange, the same colour as all those undrinkably sticky American Märzens and Oktoberfestbiers. However the proper bready aroma set my mind at ease, and on tasting: wow! They've pulled the usual 8 Degrees trick of taking an established style and moving everything up just a notch. Or maybe two. So from a big dose of Saaz and Hallertau there's a nettle flavour rising to a rocket-like pepperiness, as well as all the rounded and filling Munich malt. Proof perhaps that you don't have to be VLB-trained to make kick-ass lager, but it helps.
Staying in Cork, another festival favourite of mine was Franciscan Well's Mi Daza. This stout is a commission from the owner of several pubs in Cork city so isn't meant to be seen elsewhere, and certainly not in the posh end of Dublin. But there it was, and splendid too: light of body but with a strong vegetal hop tang, like a lighter, more sinkable version of Porterhouse Wrasslers XXXX.
Time was, getting a new Irish beer onto this blog meant drinking a glass of it and writing down how it tasted. Increasingly these days it has become a multi-stage project. So it was with the latest one from Metalman: Moonbeam. The first version of it I tasted was served from the cask and had some bonus cranberries added dry. It was nice as it went: a smooth and dry dark ale with a tart finish and just a whisper of sweet red berries. Later I got to taste the unhacked keg version and found it quite different. The tart finish spreads throughout the flavour to become a full-on bitter hop tang. The hops also leap out in a wonderful spicy green aroma which is sadly absent from the cask edition. Another one the brewers could go calling a *lac* *P*, y'know, if they wanted to.
A bit of a dry account of the new beers at the gig there: such is the nature of this blog. I also had plenty of old favourites, including Hilden's Barney's Brew: first time I'd met it in Dublin, and some fantastic dry-hopped cask versions of Franciscan Well's Rebel Red. I haven't even mentioned the splendid new bottles from White Gypsy, due to hit the off licences in the next couple of weeks, but since I took one home with me (thanks Cuilán!), those notes will be coming later.
Above all, my abiding impression was that the Irish Craft Beer Festival was not simply a big hall with beers for sale, nor a three-day piss-up, but a proper celebration of beer in Ireland as it is now, with plenty to excite both wary newcomers and jaded old hacks like me. I'm looking forward to many more years of this event.