28 July 2017

Your summer at Lidl

Back at the beginning of June, Lidl's PR folk sent me a selection of beers from their summer range, as well as a press release with details of the whole lot in it. The one in the document that caught my eye was Skrimshander IPA, though only because Twitter buddy Pete Brissenden used to work there. And the brewery is called Hopdaemon, which is terribly awesome and epic. As far as I'm aware this is the first time their beer has made it from Kent to Ireland. There was no Skrimshander in my package of freebies so I went out and bought one.

Pouring it I was worried I wasn't going to get a head. It foamed up eventually, but briefly, fading away to leave a clear coppery millpond. Unsurprisingly, the carbonation is exceedingly low. There's still a decent aroma, however, on the happy side of brown bitter: dry tannins and fruit chew-sweets. I thought I was in for a quality Adnams-a-like. But the flavour really isn't good. For one thing there's not very much of it: one has to sit through a long watery intro before anything happens. When it does it's rough and metallic, and then a worrying phenolic TCP note, though that may just be a continuation of the hops rather than an actual infection. Either way, it's not a good thing. I noticed the best-before date was some 16 months in the future and I really don't think this one will improve with age.

The second beer, also English, is called Montezuma's Chocolate Lager, and with a name like that, the first taste is of apprehension. Of course I was expecting it to be brown but it's actually a clear lagery gold. The aroma is properly chocolate, however: rich and sweet, like a hot fudge sauce. That seems out of place given that it's a pale lager, but it's nice enough overall to get the benefit of the doubt. The flavour doesn't gel together quite so well. There's a flowery Turkish delight thing at the front, and a dry lager finish. But in between it's a strange confection of discount raspberry sponge, stale cocoa and soft-serve ice cream. So after a promising start it falls into the daft novelty category; good marks for appearance and aroma but few for flavour, if you want to be all BJCP about it. That said, if it came from one of the handful of super-hyped UK breweries and had an arty abstract label, it would probably be lauded as a masterpiece of modern innovation.

Another one that (disclosure!) I went out and bought myself: doesn't it look classy? Arcana Golden Ale, from Rimini. A nice medium gold shade, perfectly clear, with only a slight reddish cast. The aroma is grainy with just a hint of syrup, intimating its 5.8% ABV. All of that gets amplified on tasting: there's an almost choking dusty, musty, burlap dryness. A little bit of fruit slips into the middle of the picture, giving it proper malt weight. But hops? No more than a dusting of bitter peach skin, which isn't much good to any hophead. Basically it's a mediocre north German-style bock. Not for me, but I can't pick out anything specifically wrong with it.

And the reason I bought that one was because it's half of a pair, with Arcana Red Ale, ramping up the ABV to 6.7% but still looking like an innocent and daycent pint of Irish red ale. We're back in bock territory, however. It's heavy, sticky even, though the malt gets rather more balance this time. From a caramel and treacle opening there's a slightly sharp leek-and-spinach green acidity that offsets the sweet rather well. It's not really different from lots of other rosso beers from Italy, but has the advantage of coming in a half litre bottle. There isn't much like it on the market in Ireland, something that in and of itself makes it worth picking one up while perusing the aisles in Lidl. There's a genuine taste of Italian beer on offer here.

A Belgian beer to finish: Bush Blonde. Original Bush was one of the legendary beers of Belgium when I was just starting to get into beer, claiming to be the country's strongest at 12% ABV. This brand extension is a scaled-back 10.5% ABV, for the nights when you're not really drinking. It's blonde all right, but shot through with a cloud of quite large floaty bits, convectioning around the glass. Despite them, the flavour is pretty clean and very Belgian, with peary acetone lightened by tropical pineapple. It's warming in the belly without being hot on the palate, which is some impressive sleight-of-hand. I genuinely expected this to be a terrible alcohol bomb, which it isn't, and even if it's far from Belgium's greatest beer, one bottle gives you a pleasant buzz without breaking the bank.

Cheers for the beers, Lidl. Not all great choices but an effort is clearly being made.

26 July 2017

LOL wut?

When I reviewed the three lagers from Poland's staunchly traditionalist Łomża a couple of years ago I did not have the brewery pegged as a bandwagon jumper. But then I was out beer shopping and spotted this limited edition Łomża IPA and had to give it a go.

I consider the bandwagon well and truly jumped, however, because this is very much IPA in the Polish fashion. It's a deep and handsome bronze colour, a full 6% ABV, and goes all out for the resins. Strangely it's not bitter, however: there's a strong perfumey flavour with spicy jasmine and honeysuckle. The acidity of the hops is reduced to a small pinch at the very end. Before that it's all but smothered under a huge blanket of malt weight. Brown sugar, golden syrup, treacle cake and sticky toffee pudding: post-war austerity treats for all the family. The texture is extremely dense, and drinking a glass is like pulling on a doppelbock. I suspect the connection goes deeper than that as, despite all the sweetness, it's remarkably clean and the flavours separately defined. If it's not actually bottom-fermented then it definitely bears the hallmark of brewers who are more comfortable working with lager.

I can't really recommend this as anything more than a novelty, but it's certainly quite a bit different to the other IPAs on the market.

24 July 2017

Outstanding in their field

12 Acres arrived on the Irish beer scene a couple of years ago with very much a unique selling point: the beer was brewed using base malt solely from the brewer's own farm in Laois, malted separately and given back to them for brewing. Originally they had a pale ale contract brewed, and that's what I reviewed, impressed, here. Since then they have established their own brewery and expanded their range. The core now runs to three beers and I had been meaning to get hold of some when the brewery sent me a set, via the good offices of his holiness the Beer Messiah -- cheers Dean!

To begin, 12 Acres Single Malt Lager: 4.2% ABV, brewed in the Kölsch style and I guess bottle conditioned as a skein of yeast floated down through the dark gold glassful while I poured, though there's no warning of this on the bottle. The aroma is oddly fruity, but enticing: honeydew and cantaloupe. This intensifies on tasting, getting sweeter and quite estery, shading towards marker pen solvents. I begin to worry what kind of nightmare hangover a few of these might induce. But it's a brief worry. It's very easy to settle into drinking this. The hallmark crispness of Kölsch is missing, but it's still pretty clean and the soft fruit is almost an adequate substitute. Lager purists may quibble but it'll likely be grand for those who just want pale, drinkable and local. And there's nothing wrong with any of those things.

Bringing the ABV up to 5.5% ABV is 12 Acres Rye IPA, a warming deep orange colour, and hazy again, of course. The aroma is an invigorating mix of orange pith and grass, which is certainly what I'd expect to result from the formula of rye + IPA. The bitterness is the main feature of the flavour, puckering at the front and burning a little at the back. It's softened somewhat by the fruit candy hops and there's a certain herbal liquorice counterpoint too. Definitely assertive, and a good beer for it, but I think the hop flavour could do with being boosted to balance against the bitterness. That's something that Kinnegar's Rustbucket does well, and the reason it's such a popular option among Irish beer fans. This tastes like a more basic, less nuanced version of that. But it's certainly an IPA and definitely gets the most out of its rye. Low carbonation lends it a sense of English bitter, though particularly the bitter sort of bitter. It's maybe a bit fusty for the modern urban beer elite, but I'd say it has already curled a few toes down Laois way.

And since it's there, a re-run of 12 Acres Pale Ale, now brewed in-house. Curiously for a review bottle supplied by a brewery this was two months past the best before date on the label. It hasn't done it too much harm, however. There's still a very pleasant and clean mandarin flavour, though with a bit of a dry rasp on the finish and a tiny touch of yeast bite. The carbonation is in the Goldilocks zone, tickling the tastebuds and livening the experience without getting too gassy. There's a zing lacking, however, which I seem to remember in the prototype, though that may be just down to the freshness. Always read the label.

So that's where 12 Acres is starting with its own venture, and I wish them luck. They currently have a monopoly on brewing in Laois (Ballykilcavan launched last weekend but is brewing elsewhere for now) and I hope the trade down there can get behind the beers and the project as a whole. There are lessons to be learned from this kind of courageous localism.

21 July 2017

Bog standard

Bog Hopper Brewery of Muff, Co. Donegal has been on the go for a couple of years now but the beers have landed only recently in Dublin and I picked up a set at DrinkStore.

To start, their pilsner Dirty Chick. I got a clean and clear glassful as I began to pour it but this was spoiled just at the end when the bottle-conditioning dregs fell in. It still looked good: a wholesomely hazy orange-gold with a handsome fluffy white head. The aroma is more that of a weissbier than a pils, sweet and fruity. It's quite sweet to taste as well, a fruit salad of banana and pear, plus a spicier smoky incense thing. All of which is the yeast at work, and the resulting esters make it thick and greasy. While quite pleasant to drink, it absolutely does not meet the crisp and hoppy spec of proper pilsner. If given it as homebrew I'd be advising the brewer that their brewing practices just aren't up to doing the style properly. I was immediately on guard for a rough and rustic set of beers.

Horny Ram did little to dissuade me of that when it began escaping the bottle as soon as the cap came off. This is a red ale at 4.4% ABV. It's clearer than the pilsner, a handsome strong-tea shade of red brown. It smells of caramel, as one would have every reason to expect of a red ale, and the flavour is all that too: a light burnt sugar sweetness, a trace of smoke, and finishing on a gentle roasted note. What it lacks is any distinguishing features. The better sort of red ale from Ireland's micros tend to put a bit of a twist on the style: extra hops, summer fruit, darker grains. This one doesn't bother with any of that and is quite bland as a result. Its decently full body means it's definitely a step up from any red ale offering from the industrial breweries but there's nothing to mark it out as exceptional or different. Still, providing an alternative for the local Smithwick's and Macardle's drinkers is probably a viable commercial strategy and a noble calling.

You need to try harder with a pale ale, however, and Hairy Bullocks is certainly a bit different. Like with the pilsner, the yeast makes a major contribution to the flavour, its nutmeg and clove combining with a gentle citrus bitterness to create a rather fun spiced cider sort of effect. The bitterness is low and the overall flavour quite dry. I've certainly never encountered an actual American pale ale that tasted like this and it's much more along the lines of an orangey English bitter. While interesting it's not very polished and I detected a slight wet cardboard burr at the very end. This is another one that calls to mind the more homebrewish side of craft brewing, with all the charms and flaws which come with that. Again, it would be fun to have this as your local beer, made by people you know, but at a time when Irish breweries are starting to make a name for themselves on the world stage it's not in the same league.

To finish, Cold Turkey, a collaboration Bog Hopper created with YellowBelly, down in the opposite corner of the country. No style is given on the bomber bottle but it's 6.9% ABV and a dark mahogany red. It smells rich and wholesome, of ripe strawberry and dark chocolate. Savoury yeast is right at the front of the flavour. It seems to be covering up the sweeter malt underneath: milky coffee and floral rosewater. There's the makings of a very nice porter in here but the rawness and the roughness spoils the whole party. Even moreso than Hairy Bullocks this tastes like the sort of bottle-conditioned English beer where the purity of the process is far more important than the purity of the flavour.

Fun, silly, but could benefit from cleaning up their act: as true for Bog Hopper's beers as it is for their branding.

19 July 2017

Were the other boys mean to you?

Who You Callin' Wussie: a name which suggests it's a pilsner for men with self-esteem issues. This has been imported from Stone headquarters in San Diego rather than the local operation in Berlin, and isn't quite street-legal in Europe as there's no metric unit measurements on the can, nor an EU address. Fortunately, nobody bothers enforcing consumer laws in this country so the importer won't get in trouble.

It pours out in proper continental style: that there's only 473ml of it leaves plenty of room for a tower of foam in my mug, over a pale gold body with just a slight haze through it. The aroma is quite sickly, suggesting all of the beer's 5.8% ABV and more, with lots of sweet and meadowy German hops. This is followed by a strange herbal mash-up of a flavour, throwing in medicinal eucalyptus, bitter thyme, pithy citrus and a funk which I can only liken to old stale piss. It's certainly not bland.

My only problem here is that it's an extreme version of the sort of German-hopped beer I've never really got along with, ramped up and intensified in that quintessentially American way. It would probably have been better served properly cold, but even then I don't think its particular flavour combination would have suited me.

I guess I'm a wussie.

17 July 2017

Tyke tins

Following on from the review of Northern Monk's Hop City a few weeks ago, more cans of pale ale in the modern fashion, from Yorkshire.

I started with this one from Magic Rock, called Fantasma. It's 6.5% ABV, and brewed with just Magnum and Citra hops so I was expecting rather more than the previous softy. It gets off to a fruity start, however, wafting out aromas of mango, peach and slightly greener spinach. The bitterness reasserts itself in the flavour, however, with a sharp lime and dry grass kick in the foretaste, fading to reveal dank weedy resins and savoury yeast bite. The intensity is tempered a little by a full and soft texture, one which manages to muffle the screechiest parts of the hop profile rather than spread them into full-on hop napalm as sometimes happens with other big bodied and highly hopped IPAs.

To my mind, Fantasma is a fairly classical expression of the pale and bitter west coast IPA, though I think it would benefit from a little cleaning up. It's perhaps a little harsh for my snowflake of a palate, but in a world where IPA is increasingly retreating into soft and fluffy safe spaces it will definitely find a fanbase among the dedicated hopheads. Oh, it's also gluten free, but doesn't taste any way compromised for that.

Moving over to Leeds next, and Piñata, a mango and guava pale ale by North Brewing. It's a strikingly opaque orange colour with a pleasant fresh fruit aroma which could easily be all hop. The flavour continues in that vein, bright and juicy with the mango particularly prominent, but also with a bitterer green edge, very similar to the spinach element I found in the Fantasma. It definitely integrates the added fruit well into the flavour, avoiding the tangy clangy syrupy thing I often find in this sort.

Where it falls down a little is in the body, which is unreasonably thin, despite the addition of oats to the grist. Those lovely hop flavours aren't given enough of a stage to perform on and after the initial bright flash they fade out much too quickly leaving a watery wake. Yes the beer is refreshing and complex, but I definitely think that giving it a bit more heft and raising the ABV above 4.5% would improve it hugely.

And finally back to Northern Monk, and a surprise can of fruited IPA that passed my way at a Social Hops meet-up in The Bernard Shaw a while back. This is 4.02 and is part of the brewery's Patrons Project, a 7.4% ABV IPA with added pineapple and grapefruit. It doesn't look strong: a wan lemon yellow, and hazy, of course. There's a spritzy, zesty aroma: all the Z's are in here. The texture is pleasantly smooth, almost creamy, and there's an oiliness that creeps into the flavour adding a degree of coconut to the citrus. Pithy bitterness is the centrepiece, however, as well as a mild resinous dankness. I wasn't hugely impressed by this: it's decently put together but there's nothing amazing about it. There are lots of IPAs just as good without the fancy artwork or high price tag. Not that I paid for this one: cheers Conor!

Doubtless there's plenty more to come from all three of these breweries, for as long as there are hops to play with.

14 July 2017

Et tu, Sierra?

Since time immemorial, or at least some point in the late 1980s, which is the same thing in craft beer terms, Sierra Nevada has been a by-word for hop-forward beers. For beer fanatics of my vintage, if you wanted reliably hoppy in a west coast way, Sierra Nevada was the old reliable. It was very much a brewery to be followed, not a follower, and you wouldn't expect them to go chasing bandwagons.

All of which is a long-winded way of expressing how disappointed I was when I found them making fruited IPAs. Fruited IPAs are for when your hops aren't flavoursome enough, and that has pointedly never been a problem for Sierra Nevada. Anyway. Calm... deep breaths... and let's drink the beers.

The sequence began with Sierra Nevada Peach IPA, on tap at 57 The Headline. And it's not bad, actually. The flavour I got was more like apricot than peach, and the fruit flavour is convincingly hop-like, raising the question of what the point was. After a long phase of smooth and juicy stonefruit it turns very slightly bitter on the end. Though only 5.8% ABV it is a little heavy and risks sickliness, particularly as it warms. It's thankfully not overwhelming with novelty but it's also not very exciting at the same time.

The same weekend that the Peach IPA arrived on tap, a pair of bottled Sierra fruit beers also appeared. I figured I may as well complete the set.

First up was Sidecar, a pale ale with orange peel. Like with the foregoing beer, the base is rather nondescript: a 5.3% ABV medium-bodied pale ale with just a mild bitterness but no stand-out hop character. The added orange doesn't exactly lend dimensions of extra flavour to it -- in fact I'd be hard pressed to identify it if given the beer blind -- but it does add a certain spice: the concentrated zestiness that you get from sniffing the outside of an actual citrus fruit. There's a concentrated oily orangeness in the middle with sweeter fizzy orangeade notes in both the aroma and the finish.

Overall it's a simple and decent beer, quaffable and refreshing, though it would definitely be improved with proper hopping in place of the peel.

Upping the ante next, to Tropical Torpedo IPA. I honestly don't know why anyone thought beery perfection like Torpedo needed tweaked but here we are. It's a clear bright gold colour and smells mildly dank. Bitterness is very low and once again I can't pick out the fruit. The label says I should be expecting mango, papaya and passionfruit but while there's a vague tropicality there's nothing specifically fruity, and certainly no big hop character. At 6.7% ABV it's quite a bit stronger than the others but it's a lot less full and flavoursome than the Sidecar.

I'll call it then: Sierra Nevada would be better sticking to humulus lupulus as the centre of their pale ales. Nobody will remember these beers when the fruit IPA craze has come to a merciful conclusion.