26 February 2018


Franciscan Well kicked off the 2018 Irish beer events calendar with the Cask Ales & Strange Brews festival at its brewpub. Once again I was dragooned into judging the beers of the festival, sketching notes blindly before finding out later what the beers were. With only a rushed taster sample of each, the results aren't the fullest of assessments, but hopefully they give enough of an impression.

The first was from YellowBelly, their Sweet & Sour Power Shower. It's pretty basic: just 3.4% ABV, and very light and easy drinking. There is some proper sour action going on, and a dry wheaty middle, but it's plain beyond that and does little to hold the drinker's attention. I'm all in favour of a mainstream, accessible and pintable sour beer being available, and perhaps this is what I'm looking for. I guess I need a full pint to be sure, but the competition sample didn't wow me.

Local brewer Cotton Ball's special for the event was the intriguingly titled Sherry TrifALE, though I've been completely unable to find any information about what it is. I do know it's 6.8% ABV and if I were to categorise it I'd probably put it somewhere in the English Strong Ale genre. The texture is heavy while the flavour begins at toffee apple before moving to a kind of acetone solvent vibe, making it one of those beers that tastes like hangovers from the outset. Approach with caution.

Northern brewery Bullhouse made a surprise but welcome appearance in the line-up. Their offering was a New England-style IPA called The Dankness. It's always best to be careful when using flavour descriptors in a beer title in case the product doesn't live up to it, and this one didn't really. It's still a very decent beer, only slightly hazy and lighter in texture than is typical for the style, with only a faint hint of gummy vanilla. There's a dry astringency too, which is a little out of place but also helps balance it away from excess sweetness. The biggest surprise is that there's no big hop flavour hit of any kind. Perhaps that's the deadening effect of cask. There's just a mild gooseberry note and then a citric bitterness in the finish. It's decent, though NEIPA purists may be disappointed.

Rascals' Margarita Soured Not Shaken did a much better job of self-description. Essentially a fruit gose, the salt, lime and sourness are all very present from the beginning. There's also an unexpected kick of ginger. I liked that it never loses sight of its base style and there's a very good classic gose discernible as its foundation, although it is quite thin and undercarbonated, as per its cocktail pretensions. This is a silly beer, but one of the better sort nevertheless.

There was a new release from Metalman. I guess it's a companion tribute piece to Waterford cuisine, following their blaa-based lager, though Red Lead merely takes the name from the processed meat product and as far as I know doesn't actually incorporate any. The brewery describes it as a red session IPA and it's just 4.1% ABV. It arrived a deep amber colour with very little aroma. The flavour offers tea notes and some light raspberry, but not much else. Easy drinking, overall, though a bit dull too. Another one to blame on the cask, maybe.

I got to try two new offerings from West Cork Brewery. Breakfast in Baltimore has been around since last year, and as the name suggests it's a coffee and oatmeal stout. The best thing about it was the texture: I know oatmeal is all about imparting a rich smoothness, but this one really got the full benefit of the oats, being luscious and thick, like an expensive chocolate sauce. There's lots of sweet chocolate in the flavour, some light coffee, and a comforting and warming alcohol glow, even at just 6.7% ABV. This is lovely winter drinking and very well suited to cask dispense.

I wasn't quite so keen on their newbie Heir Raisin'. This is described as an imperial red ale and is 7% ABV. Instead of merely warming, it's downright hot, with harsh higher alcohols running all through it. It looks soupy and smells of super-sweet toffee. By way of flavour I got overripe fruit in sickly abundance. I don't know if it's the recipe that's flawed, or merely the execution, but this could do with some serious tweaking, including a major clean-up.

Another pair came from White Gypsy. The brewery has been on a multi-year mission to perfect barrel-aged sour stout, and while I don't think the Sour Stout on display here was the finished product, it was very good. I'm not sure the brewery would appreciate the observation, but it tasted like a Guinness hack to me, not sour sour, but with a lactic tang, a seasoning. There's a light roast flavour, lots of umami, and a gentle astringency on the finish. All very balanced and drinkable.

The brewery also brought a Barrel Aged Belgian Wheat which didn't work as well. This deep orange coloured number is thick and cloying, tasting of undiluted orange cordial, plus a pithy bitterness. I find it hard to compare or relate it to any particular beer or style; suffice it to say I didn't enjoy.

West Kerry brewery had a Barrel Aged Winter Ale as their contribution. Though it's all of 6% ABV I found it a little thin. There are some pleasant dessertish qualities -- touches of chocolate and vanilla -- but also a woody sawdust thing which spoils it a little. It's OK but would be better if its various features were bigger and bolder.

The team of experienced judges picked the strongest beer available as the best in show. That was Imperial Stag, described as a Mexican imperial stout by brewer 9 White Deer, and clocking in at 13.5% ABV. The title suggests gimmickry but this is an absolutely rock solid luxury imperial stout from end to end. The flavour is brimming with sumptuous rich dark chocolate, all integrated into the beer, not tacked-on as an afterthought. The chilli is barely noticeable, just catching in the back of the throat as the silky chocolate flows past it. This was a pilot batch but you can expect full production in due course. It will be worth waiting for.

It's always such a relief to get the judging finished and get down to the festival to start drinking proper. Cheers to the Franciscan Well for making the arrangements and providing pizza from the always-excellent Pompeii on site. I managed to squeeze in a handful of other pub visits on my day in Cork, and I'll cover them in the next post.

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