26 May 2017

What's brewing?

The National Homebrew Club's annual conference returned to Smock Alley Theatre in April. As usual there was a stellar line-up of home-brewing royalty, both local and international, sharing their wisdom through the course of the day. Not with me, though: I was only there for the after-party, by kind invitation of the (very) outgoing president -- cheers Thomas!

For the ensuing bottle share I brought a bomber I took home from Portland last year, Culmination's 4 & 20 imperial black IPA, a 9.5% ABV monster. I figured that seven months' maturation wouldn't have done much for the aroma but it still smelled bright and fresh, of damp grass in particular. The texture is beautifully smooth and there's mercifully no high alcohol heat, but the flavour is the weak point. Not that there's anything wrong exactly, but it lacks any distinctive features: there's no punch from the hops, nor any tar or liquorice or spice or other complexities that one might expect to find in a black IPA of this calibre. The bottle did get finished, though. Eventually. So what did everyone else bring?

Steve opened with a bottle of Shepherd Neame's Mashtun No. 1, a strong ale the iconic Kent brewery produced in 2014 to celebrate said mashtun's centenary. I don't know whether it's the age or something in the base beer, but this was absolutely disgusting. "Mmm... funky..." was my first thought, followed by "Arrgh! Too much funk!" It's sharply rubbery at first, swerving into less offensive but quite cloying HP Sauce dark fruit and spice, before finishing with a long, long twang of dry rot and corked Burgundy. This is easily the worst beer I've tasted this year; I think it's the persistence of that rank aftertaste that makes it so offensive. What else is there?

Thankfully there was a very good palate-cleanser on tap courtesy of Wicklow Wolf. Their Born In Bray was (I'm told) a commission from their neighbours at The Harbour Bar for a light session beer. The result is a 4.2% ABV pale ale, single-hopped with Mandarina Bavaria. It's certainly light and sessionable, served on the cold side there wasn't much malt in evidence in the flavour but the texture was far from thin or watery. The hops give it an odd combination of flavours -- I got hints of coconut and a touch of onion in amongst the jaffa and satsuma zest -- and the whole thing is just complex enough for interesting drinking, while also perfectly capable of being knocked back to slake a thirst. Recommended if you're heading Bray way some sunny day soon.

Back to Steve's stash, then. Telegraph Brewing of California is next, and Buellton Silent Partner, a saison. It's one of the strong ones at 7.4% ABV and suffers a little from alcoholic overheating. Unfortunately the alcohol doesn't carry a whole lot of flavour with it: there's just some light white pepper and a whiff of peach in the aroma. Beyond that it's quite plain and inoffensive.

The Bruery's Humulus Terreux is another Californian take on a broadly Belgian profile, giving all of the fermentation work over to Brettanomyces yeast. Guess what? It tastes and smells like Brettanomyces yeast. The aroma is a heady, musky funk, with just a little lacing of honeydew melon for complexity. The flavour is pure farmyard, however. If you're still at the phase where Bretty funk impresses you by itself then here's a beer that will knock your socks off. I got bored of it fairly quickly.

Third time's the charm: Lectio Divina is a Trappist-inspired amber ale by Saint Somewhere Brewing in Florida. The label says 8% ABV but it tastes much stronger than that, heavy and cakey in the middle with a building peach fruit. However there's also a much less enjoyable -- and questionably deliberate -- TCP and vinegar. The aroma isn't much fun, smelling of soda bread and yeast. It's a bit of a mess, really. Not a total disaster but I doubt it would pass any Trappist's quality control.

Back across the Atlantic and a crowler of Weird Beard's Mesca Ulad whiskey-aged porter which Steve acquired at The Errigle in Belfast. This is a multi-brewer collaboration on the theme of Ulster and the flavour has been designed around the Veda malt loaf. My first impression on sniffing it was of banana bread rather than Veda: it's sweet and unctuous, smelling every bit of its 8.4% ABV. The misdirection continues on tasting and I got more banana, vanilla and buttered fruitcake. I would need to be prompted to spot the Veda. Overall it's lovely and warming, a great fireside sipper. Though thick and sweet it doesn't get cloying: the flavours are clean and distinct and don't hang around on the palate longer than they're welcome.

Last of this lot is Green Walnut by lambic producer Oud Beersel. This is made with the addition of your actual green walnuts where cherries or raspberries would normally go. I can't say I got anything particularly walnutty from it but it is an excellent gueuze, roaring with dry nitre and saltpetre; sharply sour yet finishing elegantly smooth. It's a class act. Cheers to Steve for all the beers he brought along.

One of the conference speakers also took some beers from home, namely Brandon Jones, brewer at Yazoo Brewery in Nashville.

The first he opened was Maracuyá y Tradicional, a Brett-fermented golden ale of 9.9% ABV aged in tequila barrels. It smells almost oppressively fruity, like one of those lurid mixed breakfast juices. That's a big part of the flavour too, spiced up with some heady spirituous booze and a smooth mature wood seasoning. Odd, but very drinkable for the strength and wonderfully complex in unusual ways.

The next one was brewed especially for the brewery's local gas station and bears its name: Belle Meade Express High Octane. It's a dark red colour and is broadly in the Flemish red style, though 10% ABV, with that classic sweet-savoury balsamic sourness but also a touch of balancing chocolate. The acetic quality builds quite quickly, outstripping any sweetness and starting to scorch the palate. While that's happening an oily herbal myrrh flavour begins to creep in as well. It's an intense experience, but a very tasty one too. It does that classic American thing of taking the flavour profile of a European beer style and cranking everything up on it. It's brash, but fun.

After those two big-hitters we finish on the much more modest Yazoo Grisette, a pale yellow 4.6% ABV example of the light saison-like style. It's surprisingly tart, though this is softened by pineapple fruit flavours and a savoury yeast bite. It could perhaps do with a little bit of a polish, but it's fine if not very exciting as-is. A big thanks to Brandon for bringing his wares over to share.

Thanks also, of course, to the tireless team of organisers from the National Homebrew Club who put BrewCon together, and to all the attendees who brought their own beers for sampling. You can meet a few of them all this weekend at the Killarney Beer Festival at the INEC. Which reminds me, I have a train to catch...

24 May 2017

Summer on a budget

The German discount supermarkets are great when summer rolls around and your requirement is for things merely decent, cheap, refreshing and in quantity, for drinking outside. Normally I wouldn't look beyond Aldi's Spaten or (and) Lidl's Crafty Brewing IPA, or any of the dry Irish ciders they both carry, but during a recent sunny spell I spotted a couple of new candidates and thought it only right to give them a go.

Lidl's Perlenbacher marque has been a byword for cheap lager since time immemorial. I hadn't seen Perlenbacher Radler before, or maybe I had but passed it by because the half-litre green can resembles any old tin of budget beer. It cost €1 and is 2.5% ABV, a whole 25% stronger than Lidl's Austrian radler which I reviewed last year. I didn't think much of that one, but this is way better. The sugar level is far lower and there's the tang of real lemons front and centre. The carbonation is gentle and the overall effect is like sherbet lemon sweets, the flavour finishing mostly cleanly with only a slight residue of syrup. And the whole experience, while not exactly high-class tippling, is really aided by the large-format can. This is perfect for glugging back to quench a thirst before opening a proper beer, though it's probably not a good idea to drink more than a couple lest the sugar jitters set in.

The next one is a seasonal and came from Aldi. The season in question, according to the label, is the beginning of Spring so perhaps Schwaben Bräu's Das Frühlings Festbier has been sitting around a while. This is badged as a Märzen and certainly has that classic rich dark gold colour typical of the style. It's a full 5.7% ABV and I detected a certain thickness as it poured, the tight foam head forming slowly. And the flavour... is rather plain, unfortunately. The big texture is certainly there, and I found myself chewing past it to find nothing very much. There's a little bit of the wholesome breadiness I expected, right on the foretaste, but it disappears quickly, as does the mild golden syrup sweetness. Where a hop bite might have been installed there's just a slightly unpleasant plastic burr. This beer meets the bare minimum standards for a medium-strong pale German classic, but it feels like a rush job, a festbier that's lost its party spirit.

Back to the Spaten then. Celebrate!

22 May 2017

Advanced for his age

Dublin's DOT Brew celebrated its first birthday with a slew of new barrel-aged small-batch beers, brought out to meet the public in Idlewild (and later Abbot's Ale House in Cork) a few weeks ago. The Idlewild event was fun, with only three lines dedicated to the selection so turnover was quick. If only life could be like this more often.

First of the newcomers was Teeny Tiny Barrel Aged Pale Ale. As the name hints, this is a mere 3.5% ABV. The barrels in question are Chardonnay, where it spent 9 months and the resulting aroma is fantastic: a sumptuous juicy white grape ripeness. I was down to earth again with the first sip of the clear gold liquid: it opens with quite a harsh pine sawdust flavour, which I'm guessing is the oak at work. The Chardonnay fruit does come out increasingly as the beer warms, and delivers a refreshing tartness in the finish, but after a while the fruit and the wood become overpowering. There just isn't enough heft in the underlying beer to counterbalance them. It's a fun experiment, but one which could do with a little fine-tuning next time out.

The next beer also highlights its smallness, going by the name of Baby Bourbon Birthday Barrel, though there's not much babyish about its 6.2% ABV. It poured black and headless, giving off a husky woody aroma with a pinch of vanilla thrown in. That develops beyond a pinch in the flavour, with vanilla becoming the dominant feature. The wood calms down and it's all very gentle and chocolatey after that. Great dessert drinking.

Tequila Saison was next on the roster. This is light and clean, saison as it should be, founded on dry grain husk flavours with a burst of white pepper spice right in the middle. The tequila has definitely made its mark on it, and there's more than a hint of that sweet prickly pear fruit flavour that's particularly prominent in the likes of Sierra Nevada's Otra Vez. The novelty feature doesn't dominate, however, and allows the beer to maintain its classical saisonosity. There's a lightness of touch here that belies the frankly unreasonable 6.2% ABV.

From a 6.2% ABV beer that tastes light to a 6.5% ABV one that tastes much much stronger. Cherry Choco Bourbon Dark leaves little to the imagination, being a dark ale aged in bourbon barrels with added cocoa nibs and morello cherries. It gets great value out of all that, resulting in a veritable sweetshop of flavours, opening on Parma Violets and Highland Toffee bars and moving through Opal Fruits, Refreshers and even a Bounty. Though thick and quite oily it's light enough to not get cloying as the multifaceted flavour kicks in. This is a sensation and would really shine in bottle form.

The final beer is a big-hitter at 9.5% ABV, named Cab Sav Malt Rye, based on a brown ale with three kinds of rye and double barrel ageing: the Cabernet Sauvignon followed by Irish whiskey. It tastes very strongly of chocolate, so much so I was wondering if it had got mixed up with the cherry chocolate one. There's a bit of cherry fruit character, but boozy, like cherries soaked in port. You end up with something along the lines of Mon Cheri chocolates, which is great 'cos I love them. The texture is light despite the high strength, and despite the roll call of serious ingredients it's an incredibly fun beer to drink.

I tend to be quite sceptical of advanced barrel-ageing with weird ingredients. For a lot of brewers it's just gimmickry, at best well-intentioned, though sometimes I suspect only done to make the name of the beer look awesome when written down. But this set from DOT has, for the most part, really got the best out of the barrels used. Hopefully we won't have to wait a year for the next set.

19 May 2017

Smooth moves

Three beers from Dano-Belgian contract brewers To Øl today. To begin, the continuation of a series of soured pale ales, a style of beer I've become very partial to. Sur Citra follows Sur Amarillo which I enjoyed last year. Just like it, this one is a hazy orange colour and the aroma is understated, hinting gently at the citrus and sourness to come. The tartness leads: first sip produces a round juicy acidity, a bit like an oude gueze but without the oak-and-nitre complexity. The Citra adds a little lime zest to this but doesn't compromise the smoothness. This is a light Sunday-jazz sort of sour beer, not a jangling punky noise-bomb. It's easy on the palate and very accessible. Substitute your brunch Bellini for it; serve it to guests arriving at your wedding reception; give it to someone who thinks they don't like sour beer.

The latest in the set is Sur Sorachi Ace which I happened across at the Abbot's Ale House bar in Cork on the way back from the Easter festival. They've messed with the formula a little here, raising the the ABV from 5.5% to 6.5% and introducing Brettanomyces yeast. All of the elements delivered in the flavour are exactly as promised in the dark orange beer. The orange peel zest that is Sorachi's hallmark is the headline, with the askew coconut hit coming in behind. Running counter to this there's a pronounced, but understated, funk from the Brett which manages to integrate into the flavour without stealing focus from the signature hop. Once again, it takes a daring set of contrasting tastes and manages to blend them seamlessly into a very approachable and fun beer. Brett and Sorachi are both sticking-point flavours for some drinkers and this expertly tames the pair of them.

The last beer is one I found on draught in The Black Sheep: Cloud 3, a low-strength witbier. I hadn't sought it out and I honestly wasn't expecting much from it, especially given that comedy ABV of 2.8%. But it really gets your attention with its aroma: bright fresh tropical fruit and a touch of exotic perfume spice. The flavour is simple, though far from bland, all mandarin and mango. It's straight-down-the-line refreshing with no sideshows or unnecessary complexity. And that's not a euphemism for watery thinness: this is properly substantial, with enough fruity-candy consistency to carry the mouth-flooding hop juiciness. Irish microbreweries get a double tax-break at 2.8% ABV and not a single one takes advantage of it. If they were able to turn out something like this I, for one, would be a very happy customer.

Their labels can look a bit scary and pretentious, but this set of To Øl beers offers easy-drinking bouncy fun. Three glasses of hazy happiness.

17 May 2017

Advance party

The Hop City festival took place in Leeds at Easter. As part of the promotional run-up, host brewer Northern Monk brewed a collaboration beer with Cloudwater and hop supplier YCH called, imaginatively, Hop City IPA.

It's squarely in the New England style, 6.2% ABV, 20 IBUs and a soupy yellow colour. The aroma is bright and fresh, throwing out juicy mandarin and spicy green rocket. In keeping with the style the body is soft and the carbonation low, making for some smooth and easy-going quaffing.

While not bitter per se, there is a certain edge to the flavour, with the mild burn of raw garlic and a touch of pine resin. That works in parallel with gentle nectarine and mango, backed by a milkshake and candyfloss pillowy sweetness. It's all finely balanced, the contrasting flavours working in a delightful harmony.

This is a beer I could drink a lot of. Hopefully the festival lived up to it.

15 May 2017

Quirky Catalans

When I wrote about the Alltech Brews & Food Festival a few months ago, I mentioned that James from Alltech was kind enough to fill the gaps in my Barcelona Beer Company sampling with an armful of freebie bottles. Today, at long last, I'm getting them written about as well.

There's an endearing quirkiness in their artwork, enough to let me forgive the fact that the first one I opened doesn't have an ABV on the label. The brewery website tells me that Big Bear is 5% ABV. It's an amber-coloured pale ale which goes big on malt, all wholegrain bread and bourbon biscuit. There's enough of an old-world hop tang -- jaffa oranges and metal -- to give it the overall feel of an English bitter, and Young's Ordinary comes to mind in particular, though it's quite a while since I last tasted that. The extra weight from all that malt does mean it's not as quaffable as a typical bitter, but it's fine for slower drinking. Sometimes it's nice when a brewery which goes all-out with its yoof craft branding delivers a resolutely traditional-tasting beer. Psyche!

On to the IPAs next, and the first is Cerdos Voladores using prestige US hop varieties Amarillo and Centennial. The brewery says it's their "rowdiest" beer, though it seemed pretty lazy when I poured it, taking a bit of agitation to get a head on. It looks handsome, though, a deep orange with just a slight haze through it. There's no slacking in the aroma: it's fresh and punchy, all lime zest and juicy nectarine. It tastes quite sweet, but in the balanced sense, with the hops still to the fore. The acidic waxy citrus underlies everything and lasts the longest, but on top of that thumping rhythm is a melody of mandarin and mango. The low carbonation I complained about actually makes for really easy drinking and despite that palate-pounding bitterness and not-insubstantial 6% ABV, I could definitely see myself reaching for another of the same after finishing one.

High expectations, then, for what did come next: Miss Hops, Barcelona's "high IPA", though still the same ABV and only a slightly higher IBU level. It looks the same, and has a similar reticence about head formation, but is much less -- how shall I say? -- hoppy. The aroma is a gentle peach and honeydew with a warm undercurrent of alcohol beneath. The first flavour I got was quite savoury and dry, almost musty. There are bright notes of tangerine and a resinous dank, but it's all quite monotone and serious. After the blazing jollity of Cerdos Voladores I was really in the mood for something happier, something this very saturnine IPA didn't deliver.

Quite a rollercoaster there in just three beers but my overarching advice is plump for the pigs.

11 May 2017

The hazy, the crazy and the just plain weird

Belgian New England IPA: I never thought I'd see the day. But here we are. A couple were on show at the 2017 Zythos Beer Festival in Leuven. The first one I spotted was called Ceci NEIPA Une IPA and was from the Broers brewery. Like what I suspect is a majority of beers in this style, it's clear: a bright orange-gold colour. It offers very much a Belgian perspective since, alongside the heavy dankness and fresh mandarin, there's a spicy clove and fruit ester quality. NEIPA's signature Vermont yeast does tend to leave behind a smooth, almost greasy body, but in this it's pretty much indistinguishable from any other big-bodied strong Belgian ale. I enjoyed it, though. There's no arguing with those lovely hops.

That was one of my early beers of the day; the last one I drank before leaving was another New Englander: Me So Juicy by Préaris. This is a wan yellow colour and has a decent bit of haze going on. Though only 6% ABV it has quite a boozy aroma, with just a hint of fruity chew-sweet thrown in. The texture is unforgivably thin, watery even. It does have that style-appropriate spun-sugar quality in the flavour but it's useless without the body to match. The hops are generous but the bitterness is too high, giving it a jangling sharp grapefruit aftertaste. I guess this is the point where NEIPA meets Belgian blonde ale, and it's not a happy place.

Not for the first time, the best expression of New England IPA's qualities was to be found in a beer that wasn't badged as one of the style. This was at the Totem stand, Totem being a client brewer, brewing mostly at Bryggja in Moerkerke, near Bruges. It was the first bar where I saw a queue, punters drawn in by the off-kilter styles of both the beers and the bar staff. Shame about the Comic Sans on the ol' signboard, though.

So, Aðumla, then, is a "milkshake IPA" and combines a fresh and peachy hop flavour with a luxurious soft and creamy body. The hops are piquant rather than bitter and the whole thing is as refreshing as an actual milkshake while still being definitely beer. I wanted to try more of what Totem were offering, so back in the queue.

L: Qwertyuiop, R: Itzamna
Their session IPA was next, called (if I've got this spelling correct) Qwertyuiop and a tiddly 2.9% ABV. They've done a great job with the aroma, which is all bright and punchy citrus but that daring ABV was a step too far and has left the beer watery as a result. The hops are grand on the opening sip but it all tails off very quickly leaving just a plain grainy crunch by the end. So there's a reason people don't generally do IPAs at this strength.

Next to it is Itzamna, an oatmeal IPA. There can't possibly be any problem with the body here. Bizarrely, there is. Even at 5.8% ABV it's still thinner than it ought to be. But the hops are its saving grace, bringing some real bitter new-world action, with pine in the aroma, an intense bitter lime kick running right through the flavour and leaving a long and satisfying acid scorch on the palate long after swallowing. It's a long way from balanced but has decided that that's your problem. Deal with it.

I popped back later for just one more Totem beer, after the crowds had died down a little. Another session IPA, this time with added smoke, and called Ah Puh. The smoke almost completely covers up any IPA qualities and there's just a tiny trace of light lemon zest to be found in the background. The foreground is a massive honking kick of chlorophenols for the full 3D 4K surround-sound Laphroaig experience. And yet it manages to remain crisp and clean, which is down to the modest 4.5% ABV strength, I guess. You'd probably have to be a peat fan to enjoy it but I am and it uses it very well.

With all of that strange and interesting stuff from Totem, I figured I should drop around to Bryggja's own stand to see if they were being equally daring. Not really, but I tried their Triple-B IPA. It's not great. Perfume looms large in this one: spicy jasmine on the nose, which isn't a problem, but intensified in the flavour, simultaneously far too sweet and far too bitter, with a nasty melted plastic edge on it. Poor show.

Also in the mediocre one-offs file was Sterrenhemel, part of the Eulegoemse range from Hemelbrouwers. How many brand names does one beer need? I was drawn to their bar by their cool logo, and of course good branding indicates that it's a contract brew, produced at Pirlot in east Flanders. Sterrenhemel is a 7.5% ABV black IPA and does everything a black IPA normally does, except in disappointing miniature. There's a mild tarry roast and a wisp of green spinach acidity plus a pinch of spiced red cabbage. It feels like there should be more, that the big flavours are just about to kick in, but they never do. It's inoffensive stuff but at that strength should definitely taste of more.

Even in Belgium, gose is inevitable these days, and I was looking for the plain one produced by Brasserie du Brabant. It was sold out, however, so I had to make do with Rêve de Gose Pom, the version with added pomegranate. It's the unattractive beige colour of an abandoned mug of milky tea. There's the soft briney flavour of a balanced gose, livened with a small fruity acidic boost. I felt it ended up falling between two stools, having the classical quaffable qualities of straight gose but also the dullness they often show. The fruit interferes with the simplicity without adding anything bold or fun. As a fruity gose it's fine, but it's no Salty Kiss.

The same brewery produced the most daring beer I saw at the festival, the portentously named Plato's Cave. This is a double IPA which they've aged in cognac barrels. Cognac grande champagne barrels, they are at pains to point out, so they must have cost a bit. From the first sip there's a shocking kick of harsh incense and aftershave so my first impression was that this was a total disaster. But after a moment or two it settles down and becomes more softly spoken. There's a pleasant warming quality, and those incense fireworks fizzle out to a nostalgic and comforting Old Spice fug, much smoother than at the outset. I could see myself sipping this, and it was really only at the end of my sample that I realised that this double IPA has no hop character. Oh well.

Finally, it was great to get a taste of the beers from Siphon Brewing, the brewery recently established by Belgium-based Irish beer blogger Breandán Kearney, aka Belgian Smaak.

Stout to begin with, of course: Cassandra, a 7% ABV one which includes crushed oyster shells for a bonus salty tang. I can't say I noticed the oysters in the flavour as this is big and rich and thick, all sticky toffee pudding and chocolate brownie. There's a boozy coffee bit in the middle which turns it to tiramisu, plus a generous sprinking of hazelnut. This is the entire dessert trolley in one beer and is sumptuous.

As is Tronk, Siphon's vanilla and orange quadrupel. It smells a little bit unpleasantly hot -- a touch of the marker pen -- but calms down on tasting. It's still fairly boozy with a banoffi pie sweetness, some chocolate and a nice balancing oily orange vibe. You know you're getting full value out of the 10% ABV.

And to finish something in completely the opposite direction: Rule of Three, a golden rye ale of just 3.3% ABV. This was brewed to celebrate Belgian Smaak's third birthday and was a collaboration with Donegal's own Kinnegar. You can read more about its creation -- breaking the conventions of Belgian brewing -- in the latest issue of the Beoir magazine here. I found that it manages to be light and refreshing without being thin and has a flavour profile reminiscent of good central European pilsner: the same sort of honey and grass. Great as a palate-cleanser, especially after the other two Siphon bruisers.

It's fascinating to watch the Belgian speciality beer scene grow to become almost as diverse as the ones in less tradition-bound European countries. I hope the drinkers are having as much fun with it as the brewers seem to be.