07 December 2016

Golden, and "Golden"

Aldi held its annual Christmas tasting event for the meeja just before Halloween. There was nothing new or special on the beer front but an effort had been made with a few of the supermarket's regulars, including a couple from Williams Brothers I'd never had before. I scribbled some notes on the evening but took a bottle of each home to get a closer look at them here.

Golden Ratio first, a 4% ABV golden ale though quite a dark, almost red, take on the style. The label copy heads me off by saying pure gold is slightly red -- so nyerr. The aroma is dry perfume, like talcum powder, and the texture soft and fluffy. Its flavour starts sweet, all golden syrup and spongecake, but a rising bitterness comes in behind it and builds to a hard spinach and cabbage finish. There's quite a lot going on for the strength, and served cold it's nicely refreshing.

The other is Perfect Storm, a 4.5% ABV IPA using an impressive cocktail of Cascade, Mosaic and Southern Cross hops. No quibbling over goldness here: it's very definitely gold. I get sweat and honey on the nose, not that different from the perfume of the previous beer, but bigger and more sickly. The flavour adds in grapefruit chunks but doesn't undo the sickliness. There's an intense herbal bathsalts twang as well. I found this very tough to drink, in a way that something this light shouldn't be: the flavour just goes all over the place, never settling anywhere nice. This one is for your least popular relations only, this Christmas.

Aldi recently held an Irish beer "festival", stocking a selection of beers from several local breweries. They didn't feature at the Christmas event but I did pick one up shortly afterwards. It's by 12 Acres Brewing which came to my attention early last year when it was still a client brewer. The unique selling point is that all the malt comes from the owners' own farm. Now the production brewery is up and running and a range of beers is on the way. This is the first of the brewery's own beers I've seen.

It's called Golden Harvest and stretches the word in the opposite direction from Golden Ratio above: it's a very pale yellow with little by way of head. It smells pleasantly zesty, of lemons in particular, and there's a soft lemon bitterness in the flavour too, starting rounded and fruity but finishing on an almost puckering bite. Perhaps ironically there's not much malt character, looking behind the hops there's little more than a dry chalkiness, but fortunately it's not thin, as the super-low carbonation lends it a certain roundness and fullness. Overall I rather like it. At 4.3% ABV it's simple quaffable fun. Worth considering if there's still some around when you're building your Christmas stash.

05 December 2016

Random Belgians

After a few years off the roster, my wife is once again making regular work trips to Brussels. And, legend that she is, this has meant a bit of a beery bonanza for me. Here are some recent examples of things she brought back and was kind enough to share.

Kasteel's Barista was first out and I'm guessing this was created with an eye to the export market. "Chocolate Quad" is definitely written in an American accent. It's 11% ABV and, typically of Kasteel, tastes like all of it and more. Even before tasting there's an intensely sweet chocolate aroma and this follows straight through into the flavour which is unpleasantly sickly. By way of balance there's just a touch of wheaty breakfast cereal dryness, but it does little to counteract the building layers of hot mocha, adding an old coffee sweatiness to the syrupy chocolate. So, not a subtle beer. Maybe the brashness is deliberate, designed to appeal to the broes who'll chug an 11%-er and pretend to like it. Not me though. This beer needs to go away and calm down.

Something much lighter to follow: Session 4 is the abruptly-named collaboration between London's Brew By Numbers and Brussels's De La Senne, top notch operations both. Yes it's 4% ABV -- insanely low strength for Belgium -- and from looking at it I was expecting to see "east coast IPA" in the description: it's that sort of opaque pale yellow. That's where the similarity ends, however. It's billed as a blonde ale and that's how it smells: all cereals and honey. It's rather more complex on tasting, introducing a lovely moist melon fruitiness and a very slight hop acridity on the finish. This isn't a million miles from Senne's own classic pale ale Taras Boulba, though like Taras Boulba I think it would be even better if it cleaned the yeast out. But that's not the way of things in Belgium, or Bermondsey, for that matter. Onward!

The next beer lays its cards right on the table with the name: Full of Hops, a white IPA by Het Nest Brewery in northern Flanders. It's the pale lemon yellow of a typical witbier, hazy but much less so than the previous beer. I get a rather homebrewish twang from the aroma, a sort of earthy funk that I don't believe belongs in either wit or IPA. A big burst of fizz is the first impression in the gob, but behind this there's a rather cultured and elegant beer, with a dry prosecco grape character and then a more intense hop burn in the finish. White IPAs aren't normally my favourite beer style but this one dodges the soapy pitfalls rather well. Still smells rank though, which is unfortunate.

Enough craft messing, it's soberly traditional Dupont next, and their Bière de Miel organic honey beer. They've got their money's worth out of them bees as the end result is 8% ABV. It's a hazy pale orange colour and smells warm and sugary with that uniquely Belgian savoury yeast funk. I get more honeydew melon in this, but it's a lot more: intensely sweet. That turns to a distinctly honeyish perfume in the finish, one which fades off the palate in a mannerly, unsticky, way. As expected, this is a classically understated sort of honeybomb, showing off the key ingredient but not getting in the drinker's face with heavy amounts of booze or sugar. I don't know that I'd drink more than 250ml at a time but it's an entertaining sipper which leaves a pleasant wholesome warmth in the pit of the stomach.

And lastly Viven Master IPA. I thought I'd covered this in my last Viven round-up back in 2012 but it turns out I didn't. Having really liked the double IPA I was expecting big things from it. It's a muscular 7% ABV, though pale and innocent-looking in the glass. Quite a bit of alcoholic heat comes through in the aroma, with just a small element of juicy peach struggling to make itself heard. It really steps up to the mark in the flavour, however, where the soft stonefruit is right out at the front, backed by bitterer grapefruit and lime. The two sides work perfectly in tandem for a well-rounded classic US-style IPA experience, minus any crystal malt toffee, thankfully, and only a slight yeast burr serves to remind you that this is actually a Belgian. Like the honey beer, a building belly warmth is its legacy after it has departed from the palate.

A bit of a ropey start to this lot but some lovely examples of the Belgian brewer's art here.

02 December 2016

They don't know Jack

Session logoI had thought that 2016 was going to be the year of Dublin brewing but sadly there hasn't been the boom I anticipated. It's great that Hope is now in full production in Donaghmede, and the Stone Barrel/Third Circle joint venture must be nearing completion, but there's just one other new brewery: Jack Smyth's on the Greenhills Road.

The brewery is an offshoot of Gallagher's Boxty House, a Temple Bar institution, serving potato pancakes to tourists since the 1980s. I'd never been in, but the promise of new Dublin-brewed beer was enough to get me over the threshold one evening last month. There's quite a decent selection of draught beers, with the two Jack Smyth's offerings at the front of the row of taps. I ordered Jack Smyth's Gold to begin with and watched as my server poured me a glass of Independent Brewing's Connemara Pale Ale. I tasted it just to be sure -- that unmistakable big grapefruit hit -- before bringing it back to the bar to ask another member of staff to change it for me.

The Gold is a dark blonde ale, slightly hazy, and with a pleasant lemon cookie aroma. That biscuit effect is the first thing I noticed and there's also a warm Belgian-style fruity ester quality plus a solid kick of spinach bitterness in the finish. All of which would make for a lovely beer if they weren't also accompanied by a harsh soapy perfume flavour, one which brought laundry detergent to mind with every sip. Worst of all, the soapiness builds on the palate as the beer goes along, eventually dominating the whole flavour. A half of this was plenty for me.

To follow, a half of Jack Smyth's Stout. They'd made a mess of my food order so this one was on the house while I waited. There was a bit of consternation when I asked what the ABV was: nobody knew and it wasn't written down anywhere. A phonecall was made. Somebody went to the cellar to check the label on the keg, and word eventually came back that it's 4.6% ABV. Now we know.

I was happy that it wasn't served nitrogenated, although the head retention was very poor and it looked a bit sad in the glass. It smelled sweetly of treacle and caramel though the first impression on tasting was a very dry carbonic bite. There's a bit of milk chocolate and a mild metallic tang which together make for a passable flavour, but it's a little bit like first-effort homebrew: there's no depth to it and the body is thin, making it feel cheap. Not far away you can get far superior porters and stouts at JW Sweetman and The Porterhouse. Jack Smyth's has a bit of work to do to reach that standard, but that's where it should be aiming.

The standard of Dublin porter is an issue that should concern every right-thinking drinker in this town. I often wonder what we lost when the city's medium-sized industrial breweries closed down during the great shake-out of Irish brewing between 1860 and 1960. For The Session this month, Stan Hieronymous is asking us to pick four people, living or dead, to have dinner with, as well as the beers to be served. I'd love to have a director each from the Phoenix Brewery, Watkins, Findlater and The Anchor, from let's say 1890 when business was booming for all of them, to discuss the shape of the industry over a few pints of their respective porters. From our vantage point in the 21st century, the tumble of Dublin porter brewing towards a (brief) monopoly by 1950 seems inevitable, but I'm sure they didn't see it like that back then. What did they think was securing their place in the market? Could they have done anything differently and stayed afloat longer? Details of how these breweries operated is frustratingly scarce: it would be enlightening to get a first-person perspective on it. There might even be a lesson or two in there for Dublin's modern day brewers.

30 November 2016

Bang for your buck

Rye River's Crafty Brewing Company American Style Pale Wheat Ale arrived in Lidl to much fanfare (and extensive shortages) in late October. I finally tracked some down in the Terenure branch, handed over my €2, and brought it home.

Back in the old days (around 2007), American Wheat Beer meant a travesty of a style, brewed with a weissbier grist but a neutral ale yeast, resulting in an invariably boring grainy outcome. Nowadays, however, "American Style" anything is the signal to expect hops. This one is still using the neutral yeast, though, which I guess is why it's not badged as a hopfenweisse or white IPA.

It's 5% ABV and the hazy orange colour of many an American pale ale. Cascade and Mosaic are the hops, the label helpfully tells us, and it smells enticingly of fresh mandarin and peach. The texture is a little thin for a wheat beer, but it's still nicely soft. Mosaic dominates the flavour with a major caraway seed savouriness and a touch of garlic behind. A little bit of mandarin juice rounds it off, then a pleasantly acidic hop residue burn remains in the aftertaste. It's certainly boldly  flavoured, intense even, but is ultimately quite simplistic in its bombast.

Overall I found it a little too savoury to be properly refreshing, and it's not the first Mosaic-heavy beer I've had that issue with. But it certainly fits in with the other big-flavoured Crafty Brewing beers, and for the price you definitely get your money's worth of hops.

28 November 2016

A bigger Belly

Wexford's YellowBelly brewery descended on 57 The Headline for a tap takeover in early November, bringing as broad a selection as I've seen from one brewery at one of these events. And all, of course, with their distinctive badge artwork from in-house designer Paul.


Naturally I started at the low end, with Harvest Lager, brewed using their own supply of Tipperary-grown Hersbrucker. The ABV is a concerning 3.9% and it's an extremely pale white-gold colour. And yet the body is surprisingly buoyant with a decent amount of candyfloss malt to get your teeth into. There's a real proper noble hop bitterness and a perfect crisp finish. I'm used to being aww-bless tolerant of Irish-hopped beers but this is just a damn decent lager however you look at it.

A tapping mix-up meant I was given an unexpected glass of the companion piece: Harvest Ale. This one is extremely dry with a strong brown-bread-crust flavour. Not unpleasant, but a little odd. Bramling Cross is the homegrown hop, and I detected a small touch of raisin in lieu of the usual blackcurrant effect. I'd be hard-pressed to stick a style label on it but with all that dry husky grain I'd probably end up describing it as some kind of top-fermented kellerbier. It's that sort of rustic wholesomeness.

But back to the lager. Pink Freud is in the Vienna style, though disappointingly yellow rather than pink. It tastes darker than it looks, however: with appropriate sweet and smooth melanoidins from the Munich and Vienna malts. The hops are rather muted and the finish is abrupt, both of which would be normal for the style, though I'm less sure about the rising alcoholic heat that started to creep in as it warmed. I think this one might still need a little therapy.

The wooden spoon of the evening went to Little Red, a 3.9% ABV red ale. A sharply sweet strawberry flavour opens it, leading on to a harsh bitter roasted twang at the end. It's very thin as well, something which really accentuates the pointy edges and makes it harder to drink. While successfully avoiding the blandness trap, this ended up falling into a different one.

No fancy name on Citra Pale Ale, a 4.8% ABV single-hopper. This is a hazy shade of yellow and has a huge zingy sherbet foretaste and a beautiful lemon rind bitterness for a finish. The middle is a little disappointing: there's a hollowness there, thinner and more watery than the strength would suggest. It does get more complex as it warms a little: the sherbet gets sweeter while the lemons turn dank, but it never manages to shake that thinness. Built for the session, I guess, but I'd like a bit more wallop.

The much-renowned Castaway was on, and I enjoyed a note-free pint of that at the end, pleased to learn it'll be something of a regular. The other sour beer they brought was For Whom The Sour Trolls. Citra again, only 3.7% ABV, and an unattractive turbid brown colour. The flavour is massive: a super-sour mouth watering lemon pith smack up front; a chalky alkaline finish and the savoury yeast grit for balance. It sounds awful, like a bunch of brewing flaws strung together, but it works beautifully, scrubbing the palate clean and awakening the senses. Though missing many of the subtleties, it's the closest thing to jonge lambic I've tasted from an Irish brewery. I'd happily clear a stoneware jugful.

On to the stronger stuff now. G'way IPA was making its début, a 6.7%-er with a big Colombus and Cascade bitterness. I got a seriously oily resinous aroma and a jaw-pinching acid bitterness followed by green cabbage and asparagus flavours. This is seasoned with an earthy, woody note, almost smoky with hints of mushroom and leaf mold. It's a very grown up sort of IPA, and tasty with it.

The first draft of Salubrious Stout was also on. The main batch is currently ageing in a whiskey cask but this one was given a dose of whiskey-soaked chips instead. Despite being all of 9% ABV and very dark and dense, the stout character gets a bit lost under the sweet honeyish Irish whiskey and the corky oak flavour. If you prefer vanilla, honey and booze to coffee and chocolate this might suit, but it was out of kilter for my palate.

And the evening's final new beer was Queen Lizzie, officially described as an "Imperial English IPA", 8.3% ABV and served from the handpump as Her Majesty doubtless prefers. It's a clear and innocent gold colour but tastes shockingly hot at first. After a moment the nuances emerge: golden syrup malt and a spinach-like green bitterness. Three sips in I was utterly charmed by the roundness and smoothness, and looking for a fireplace to settle into it by. Yes, it's an English bitter at its core, but there are definite shades of barley wine and tripel around the edges.

Hopefully, with YellowBelly's production moving out of the basement to a big-boy brewery, we'll see beers like this on a more regular basis, not just on special occasions. Props as always to The Headline for making this one possible.

25 November 2016

Of Saints and Rascals

There's much to catch up with as regards new Irish beer in recent months. Going all the way back to early October, St. Mel's were in town, occupying some of the taps in The Beerhouse for an evening. The new kid was St. Mel's IPA, which came with the warning that it's made to be sold in Longford. Which is fine: Longford people need IPA same as the rest of us. It's 5.2% ABV and a dark red colour. There's a wholesome density to it, warming, with an autumnal dark fruit kick on the end plus a touch of tannin. So an IPA in the strong English bitter mould then? Very much so. I happily downed a couple of pints of the kegged version but would love to try it on cask.

The guys had also brought the last of this summer's Beer Garden Wit, a seasonal I completely missed last year. There's elderflower in this and it features in the flavour in a big way. Alongside it there are big and warming Belgian yeast esters which I wouldn't have marked down as particularly summery, but maybe they're less intrusive when the beer is served cooler. It left me looking for the clean refreshing edge that witbier can usually be relied upon for.

From an out-of-season beer to one that was right on time: Rascals Social Hops #1 débuted in The Square Ball the following night. Social Hops is a community-based hop growing project, supported by the Bodytonic pub chain. The harvest was in mid-September and three weeks later there was a 4.5% ABV blonde ale on tap. The hops were all Prima Donna (except for a token bittering addition of something commercial) and the signature soft lemon flavour of this variety really shone, set on a lightly effervescent body and with a dry finish. It's, understandably, a subtle beer, but very drinkable and refreshing with it.

When not putting crowd-sourced hops to good use Rascals has also been continuing the sour beer series it began in September with The Hoppy One. Project Sour No. 2 is subtitled Seriously Saison and is very saison. Peppery vapours drift up from the hazy gold beer, and it tastes very fruity -- I get plum and lychee in particular -- plus a spicy edge in the finish. There's only the briefest pinch of tartness in amongst this before the fruit esters take over the flavour once again. It's a decent saison but I wanted much more from the sourness.

I hoped I'd find that in Project Sour No. 3 aka Forest Fruit Sour, and I sort-of did: there's a big punchy lactic sourness in the flavour of this clear purpley-pink beer. But in front of it there's an unsubtle candy-sweet syrup flavour which brings the blackberry, dark cherry and even blueberry notes into the equation. It really reminded me of the cheapo fruit lambics made by the industrial brewers of Belgium: they were what first interested me in sour beer and I have a soft spot for how they operate, but they're not exactly sophisticated. This beer does deliver what it promises: it is sour and really tastes of forest fruit, but I was looking for something more substantially complex.

More recently, Rascals has also released an updated version of the Mint Chocolate Stout they were pouring at the RDS in September. The specific item of confectionery they're attempting to mimic is signalled by the name: 8:01, and they've raised the ABV and general flavour levels. The end result is 6% ABV and has a lovely oily mint twang. At the launch event in (where else?) The 108, I got to try it nitrokegged side-by-side with the straight-carbonation canned version. And while the nitro one hasn't been stripped of its flavour, the dry roast crispness and fun milk chocolate sweetness are much more apparent in the cans. Like the Ginger Porter on which the brewery was founded, this never loses sight of the classic beer style at its roots, which is very much to its credit.

And a footnote from Rascals: their Aussie-hopped Flamin' Red double IPA from last winter has been tweaked, rebadged and relaunched as Big Red DIPA but is still pretty much the same jammy spicy warmer it was before.

That's it for now, with much more Irish beer to come next week.

23 November 2016

Ghost chilli

The beers of Brasserie Fantôme can be hit-and-miss, to say the least. And yet what often tastes like your mate's dodgy homebrew seems to have garnered a cult following around the beeriverse and I'm not sure why. I doubt it's the branding. Anyway, the missus brought a bottle of Fantôme Chocolat from Belgium a while back and we sat round one evening to give it a go. It's an 8% ABV saison with the addition of chocolate and chilli.

Expecting something vaguely brown, I was surprised to get a bright orange beer out of the 75cl bottle. It poured flat at first, gradually forming a fine off-white head. It smells vaguely of chocolate, in a kind of artificial and sickly sort of way, though there's also a pleasant touch of white-pepper saison spice. The texture is thick and syrupy, not helped at all by the faint level of fizz. There's a certain spice to it but I can't for certain attribute that to the chilli, in fact it seems very typical of this sort of Belgian yeast. A degree of warmth does settle in the belly after a couple of mouthfuls and I'd be reasonably confident that that's where the chilli action happens. It doesn't taste of chocolate at all.

This is very much a saison through and through, and not a particularly good one, in my opinion, being too hot and heavy. The special ingredients don't do much to steer the experience one way or another. €13 for a bottle of this, in a town where the same amount of Cantillon gueuze costs a fiver? Thanks but no thanks.