23 October 2017

Hypetrain USA

I left off on Thursday talking about the special exclusive American beers that the Brewers Association brought to the Irish Craft Beer Festival last month. The following day I was away to London for Beavertown's Extravaganza and, unsurprisingly, American beer featured heavily in my day there too.

The festival itself was held in the gargantuan industrial space of The Printworks in Rotherhithe, spread over three-and-bit halls with a host of breweries from the USA, UK and elsewhere, each pouring two beers at a time in dinky 100ml serves. The unusual feature was that the beer was all-inclusive, so no messing around with tokens or cash. The system worked quite well, I thought. The heavily hyped breweries had large queues, but there was no obligation to drink those, and the lines did move fast in any case. Kick-off was at 3pm and it was only around 7 that I started seeing some mild staggering, smashed glasses and collapsing benches. The crowd began to thin out shortly afterwards as the bars started running out of beer, and the party had reached its natural conclusion by the 10pm closing. I had some 30 new beers and ciders under my belt at this stage and felt I'd achieved my money's worth.

I wasn't looking closely, but I suspect the consistently longest queue of the day was at Trillium. I figured it was worth a go, and got in line early, first arming myself with sustenance for the journey. That was in the form of Dragon Mask, a 12% ABV imperial stout from San Diego's Modern Times. And jolly nice it was too: a suptuous mix of chocolate and coconut, warming all the way down like a mug of mocha on a cold day.

At the top of the queue they were pouring Trillium's Port Point Pale Ale. It ticks a lot of the New England boxes in a fairly perfunctory way: the milky yellow colour, a background vanilla sweetness and then lots of garlic bouncing around up front. All very familiar and not particularly special. The ABV is up at 6.6% ABV though the texture is unforgivably watery for that. It was fine but I wasn't getting back in line for another.

Other Half also attracted queues, though a fair bit shorter than Trillium's. Mylar Bags was much more to my taste despite being a double IPA. It really helped that it didn't taste anything like its 8.8% ABV, but also that the garlicky hops blend with a cleaner and lighter minty herbal kick. The base is candy-sweet but the hopping is well able to balance it and gives it a superbly long finish. Yes it's another one of those murky yellow American savoury IPAs, and a little one-dimensional with it, but it does what it sets out to do quite beautifully.

And amazingly there was an even better double IPA than that: Ca$h Only from San Francisco's Cellarmaker. The ABV goes up to 9.1% and there's a luxurious smoothness to the whole thing, loads of dank oils but no heat, no acid: none of the things that generally turn me off the style. Despite the name it's pure understated class. I've no idea how they achieved it.

It was funny to see the US breweries who would have had serious geeks queuing around the block five or ten years ago twidding their thumbs while waiting for customers. Maybe I just caught Three Floyds in a quiet moment. Their Battle of Charro II imperial IPA with Brettanomyces and cherries was a bit of a disaster. 10.8% ABV and heavily sweet with a cloying perfume quality, it began tasting of throat lozenges and eventually turned to cough medicine. Everything on this would need to be dialled way back to make it drinkable, but maybe the lesson is not to mess about with IPA as if it's a stout.

Lost Abbey was playing the Brett game rather better. Genesis of Shame (what?) was the one I opted for. It's just 6.5% ABV and is a golden ale at its base, blended with a barrel aged version plus peaches and more Brett. The fruit sits at the centre of it all, the sweet juice contrasting with an unctuous umami smack. There's a bitter edge of peach skin and then a complementary waft of farmyard funk in the finish. It's one of those orderly beers, where the tastes line up and deliver themselves onto the palate politely and respectfully. A masterpiece of balance and complexity.

Next door, Lost Abbey's former parent brewery Pizza Port had The Jetty IPA on offer. This one is as west coast as they come: pale yellow, 7.3% and massively bitter. There's really not much else happening other than bitterness but it's bitter in so many ways: citric, vegetal and waxy all at once. It wasn't to my taste though I'm sure it was exactly as the brewer intended.

Oregon's Boneyard had something similar but different going on with Enzymatic, dropping the ABV down slightly to 7.1%. The flavour is calmer, allowing subtleties to come out, with a light and zesty lemon and lime being the main feature. It's surprisingly quenching despite the substantial strength and there's even a detrimental thinness to the body. It's pleasant, though: a lovely expression of classic west coast IPA without going too extreme. Good old dependable Boneyard.

On then to the wild side of the house. Crooked Stave's Petite Sour Raspberry is a beer I had before in Dublin, courtesy of the lovely Padraig. And then I shamefully lost my note on it, but here was a chance at redemption! At no extra cost! It's a handsome, dark, purpleish-pink colour, and very big on the zingy sherbet fruit. The sourness is almost an afterthought, and there's a subtle lacing of barnyard funk through it as well. Gentle, balanced and quite tasty, even if it's missing the wow factor.

I'm searching my notes for wow factor now. Ah yes: Guava in Berlin, a super fruity sour beer by Green Cheek Beer Company in California. It looks like coconut milk and tastes of breakfast juice but is also amazingly clean and refreshing, the lactic acid doing just enough to tidy up any sweet excesses and balancing it all beautifully. It's less of a novelty gimmick than the name might suggest.

Less spectacular was Arizona Wilderness Bush & Vine. This is concocted from grape and blackberry and given the mixed-culture fermentation treatment. It's 6.4% ABV and has lots of sweet grape character but not much else. Easy going and pleasant, I guess, but we're back to American sour beers that fail to do anything especially interesting.

But even they were streets ahead of Saison du Fermier 3 from Side Project Brewing in St. Louis. The brewery appears to specialise in this sort of thing so I'm surprised this one went so far wrong. Over-ambition, perhaps, because while it starts off with pleasant melon and pepper, there's suddenly a blast of strong acetic sourness which just ruins it. There's endless debate as to the precise nature of saison but I've never seen any claim that it's supposed to burn your nose hairs. This one does. It's just too severe: an experiment by a bored brewer that did not work out and we the drinkers have to live with the consequences.

Time for some dessert. With Hair of the Dog in the room some chewy strong ale was called for. Here was Fred, a beer that exists in many aged editions but I don't think I'd ever seen it in its classic form. Very nice it is too. A heavy candy malt base overlaid with a concentrated Liquorice Allsorts herbal flavour. Despite the golden amber colour it tastes dark, though not hot. Perfect digestif material.

It would have been very wrong to leave without stopping by the Bell's stand, and that was one of my last calls. Expedition Stout was on the deck, shamefully left over when most other beers had run out. 10.5% ABV and silky smooth. In proper, and all too rare, imperial style it's powerfully bitter. There's a raw coffee grounds effect which sounds wrong but works really well. A savoury grain effect rounds it off and helps further stamp the no-nonsense credentials onto it.

Scouring the rooms full of sold-out bars towards the end I was surprised to see Dogfish Head still in business and wobbled over. Ah. Punkin. Well that might explain it. Go on then. It's a fairly inoffensive clear amber offering, lightly textured and lightly flavoured at an unreasonably strong 7% ABV. Yes there's nutmeg and cinnamon: you know the drill. Even as a pumpkin beer agnostic I was underwhelmed by this one.

If I'd written these in strict chronological order, that would be me staggering off into the east London night, but no! Through the miracle of thematic posts we get to reset and start again with the non-American beers next. Stay tuned!

20 October 2017

Next!

I've been writing about the Irish Craft Beer Festival at the RDS all this week, but before we tumble headlong into the rest of September's festivals (four more countries to go, folks) I want to catch up on the assortment of Irish beers I drank at home and in the pubs during the summer.

On the very day I posted my last Irish beer round-up I picked up a can of The White Hag's Atlantean, their new IPA in the fashion of (consults atlas) ah, New England. It looks the part: an even sickly yellow and a thin skim of head. Lots of sweet pineapple in the aroma, verging on oversweet but promising enough to make me go in for a sip. It's surprisingly watery when it hits the palate; at 5.4% ABV it doesn't really have an excuse for the hollowness. Around the edge of the crater there's a quite bitter allium burn: simultaneous garlic and spring onion. As the harshness fades there's a tiny hint of peachy fruit but it doesn't stick around to play. My problem here is that this has all the hop features of a really good modern IPA but the malt simply is not there to carry it, which shouldn't be the case given the strength. The absence of a firm controlling hand makes the hops too hot and allows a nasty yeast twang to creep in too. I guess the Vermont yeast was supposed to provide the substance but for some reason it fell asleep on the job. Anyway, it's a surprise pass from me.

I had no idea what to make of the announcement that Black Donkey had released a smoked rye saison. Smoked. Rye. Saison. I  did know that I had to try it so trooped along to 57 The Headline at the first opportunity to get hold of this alluringly-titled Bog Fire. I got a murky mugful, a fairly bright orange-ochre colour. The aroma is sweet and smoky, which was a good start as I had been fearing something acrid and harsh. It's not, and not on tasting either. The malt sweetness starts it off, all marmalade with just a slight backing of grassy rye. Then the smoke layer comes on top, but still sweet, like crispy maple-smoked bacon. The saison element only really emerges as the beer warms, presenting as a juicy honeydew melon feature, further softening the smoke. It gets a little harsher in the finish as a dry astringency creeps in, but not enough to upset a very well-constructed beer, one which makes great use of its constituent parts.

Keeping the murky theme going, we turn next to Edelweiss, new from White Gypsy. This surprised me at first with how dark it looked, and then by how dark it tasted. There's a definite whack of caramel, or even toffee, in here -- enough to add a sense of dunkelweisse to the whole picture. There's also banana by the bucketful, in the form of those foam sweets rather than any real fruit. The saving grace is a decent kick of green noble hops adding a flavour of celery in particular, but you do have to go looking for that, so heavy are the malt and yeast components. Though a modest 5% ABV it's a very chewy offering, and that density only accentuates the sweetness. It wasn't to my taste and I'd prefer everything except the hops to be more tightly restrained.

Endless Summer, a collaboration between Donegal Brewing and its neighbour Boghopper, arrived at UnderDog, appropriately enough, in early September. This is a 4.5% ABV pale ale, a middle-of-the-road golden colour with just a very slight haze. The aroma is sweet, and a little sticky, reminding me of bright pink raspberry-flavoured ice cream sauce with a sprinkling of orange sherbet. The flavour is very different, however. From the first taste I got a harsh acridity, savoury like yeast, but with overtones of smoke as well. At the very end there's a brief flash of orange, but it's not enough to save the overall taste. The base beer behind the flavour is thin and fizzy, with a dry chalkiness, which accentuates the severity of it all. I couldn't say if it's an infection, a fining issue, or if it's merely over-bittered, but however you slice it it doesn't result in a happy beer drinking experience.

At the same strength, but done much better, is the new Brú Pale Ale, recently added to the core range of the Trim brewery. It's very pale, presenting like more like a watery lager than a pale ale, and topped with a thick layer of fine mousse. Nothing lagery about the flavour, however: combined Bravo, Calypso and Denali hops give it a serious hop kick, a sharp leafy bitterness, turning from al dente vegetables to oily lime juice after a minute. The body is light but has sufficient weight to carry the hops and offset any possible harshness, though you can forget about any malt contribution to the taste. It's a simple little chap, but very well made and a steal at four half-litre bottles for a tenner.

Staying in the Midlands, the very Midlands, Marooned is the first beer from Dead Centre Brewing and I picked up a can at DrinkStore. The cheering you can hear from the sidelines is because Dead Centre will be setting up in Westmeath, the only county in the Republic of Ireland currently without a brewery. For the moment they're brewing at St. Mel's in Longford, and props for informing the drinker of that clearly on the can. The packaging generally sends very specific signals: a 440ml can, with clean minimalist branding and an almost forensic description of what the beer is made from. But does it walk the walk?

Marooned describes itself as an oatmeal IPA and is 5.5% ABV. There was lots of foam as it poured but this subsided after a while, leaving a hazy orange body with a thin skim of foam. The aroma is superb: fresh tropical peach and pineapple, and a sharper garlic or spring onion element. Perle, Simcoe and Mosaic are the hops, and I'm guessing the Mosaic went in very late. My mouth was watering before the beer came near it. The oatmeal gives it a smooth texture and there's more to the grain side than that: a firm and slightly sweet bready malt character. Really, though, the hops are in charge. It loses its tropicality somewhat on tasting, but the spicy green scallions still walk tall through it, with a more traditional backing of jaffa orange. The finish is quite quick, but that just adds to the clean drinkability. There's a lot of Rye River's Francis' Big Bangin' IPA about this one, just at a more manageable strength. A great first move.

I chased YellowBelly Mortis up and down the country before I eventually caught it. The brewery released a very limited quantity in late August and I hoped I'd find it at their bar at the Great Irish Beer Festival. It wasn't there, but Danny directed me to the Abbot's Alehouse which was due to tap it up that evening. Unfortunately they didn't do so until after my train left. So when it landed at UnderDog a week later, I made sure I wasn't going to miss it.

It's a dark sour beer brewed with black cherries. It presents like a stout: pure black with an off-white foam on top, and it smells quite stouty too, with an aroma of  treacle in particular. The flavour is... singular. There's a very strange blend of coffee roast and chocolate sweetness with sweet cherries. Normally this is the bit where I'd say it tastes like Black Forest gateau, but it doesn't. It's only 3.8% ABV, with all the thinness that comes with, and while it's not sour per se, there is an attenuated tang running through it. Despite the oddness, it's quite a simple beer once you're in the middle of it: all the shocks are at the front. I rather enjoyed the way it takes normally disparate tastes and blends them together into a weird but fun cocktail. Three more dark sour beers are due to follow it. Consider me intrigued.

A double IPA head-to-head next: tall cans at 20 paces. Perfect Union was a late September release from Galway Bay, brewed in collaboration with NOLA of New Orleans. The can was a gift from head brewer Tom. It's 8% ABV and uses a Vermont ale yeast, so is unsurprisingly hazy, with some fairly substantial chewy lumps floating around in it. Allium is the main thing the hops bring: fried onion and oily raw garlic first, though a softer juiciness follows, accompanied by a candied malt sweetness. The carbonation is low leaving the texture quite dense and sticky. That garlic napalm creeps back in the finish. Bottom line: it's grand. Lots of happy hops while avoiding the worst excesses of strong IPAs. A bit more fruit and a bit less garlic would be nicer, of course.

And in the white corner, Let It Happen, the third in a series of hop specific double IPAs after Saturate with Mosaic and Drone Logic with Simcoe. Now it's Citra's turn. Woo! The ABV matches Perfect Union point for point, and while it's paler it's not a whole lot clearer. There's a cleaner, sharper bitterness, though there's still a definite waft of spring onion around the edges. No Vermont yeast so a lighter, and frankly more enjoyable, texture. It's remarkably easy drinking, the alcohol driving the hop flavours without adding any heat of its own. No fireworks again, but an elegant double IPA, all characteristics integrated into a single coherent piece. Let It Happen is more softly spoken than Perfect Union, and a better beer for it, I think.

A Whiplash victory lap, then, and a glass of Fantasm Planes. I missed this when it sold out at the Great Irish Beer Festival so was delighted to find it on tap at UnderDog some time later. The official description is that it's Kölsch-style, but that must just be the background technicals, because it doesn't offer anything a drinker would expect from a Kölsch. For one thing it's very hazy, and for another there's a very distinct New World hop flavour: huge peach and mango in the aroma and flavour, with just a spark of resinous dank at the end. The texture is smooth and creamy, though the murk doesn't interfere with the taste. This is a beautiful, easy-drinking, low-bitterness hop-forward pale ale and I loved every sip. At 5.5% ABV it would be exceedingly pintable if it were available as such: I had to make do with my 33cl serve and wanted more at the end.

Staying in UnderDog for a couple more, here's Azacca Saison, a new special from Black's of Kinsale. Hops and saison can be a winning combination but this one doesn't quite have the formula right. The flavour is mostly quite simple, with an old fashioned orangeade element at the centre, the impression helped by the light and thirst-quenching texture. That's enjoyable even if it's not very saison-like. The problem comes later, with a harsh and savoury yeast streak, mixing farmyard funk with seasoned meat, leaving the beer tasting dreggy and a lot less fun. It seems to be the rougher and more evil side of saison that has come through, and it left me wishing for something cleaner to show those hops off better.

That didn't stop me from picking Otterbank Brown Brett as my next beer. This 6% ABV barrel-aged brown ale makes great use of the Brettanomyces it was brewed with: there's a beautifully dry funk in the aroma, continued in the earthy foretaste where it unites with high-cocoa dark chocolate. It's a lovely balance of sweet and dry; candy and rot; a snap of wafer coated in warm gloopy caramel. I couldn't taste anything that the barrel may have added, but there's plenty going on without it.

Cashing in on the all-conquering Dublin football team, 5 Lamps released Up the Dubs in time for the All Ireland final last month. I caught up with it rather later at 57 The Headline. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it when I tried it, other than I found it far too sweet. Research revealed that it's a wheat beer with apricots, and that helped things fall into place, even if it didn't improve it any. There's a certain jammy quality, though nothing I would readily identify as an apricot flavour. The body is thick like a weissbier and there's an artificial metallic bitterness tacked on at the end. Overly-sweet weissbier is always a turn-off for me, and the addition of fruit to this one just makes it even more sickly.

Proprietor Geoff was kind enough to share a sample of King Kumquat that Rascals had dropped in. This kumquat-flavoured IPA was launched at the Brewtonic Beer Festival at the end of September, which I was sad to miss. It's a collaboration with new Dublin brewer Hopfully. This is a beer of two halves: the aroma is that of a serious US-style IPA, all leafy and resinous, and then the fruit explodes outwards in the flavour. It doesn't taste like orange, strangely enough, and I got more of a lime kick from it, as well as a greasy quality, like coconut. It's very tasty and beautifully clean: a beer that looks like a novelty on paper but has a wonderful integrated elegance in the way the taste is constructed.

At a family wedding at the Farnham Estate in Cavan it was a pleasant surprise to find beers from the local client brewer Hyland. We don't get these in Dublin even though they're brewed here, and I'd never tried the red. Celtic Red Branch is a pretty good example too, big on sweet summer fruit balanced by an assertive roasted dryness. It's full-bodied and filling, despite being just 4.5% ABV. I had been drinking Smithwick's beforehand, and a bottle of this was like suddenly switching into 3D.

Finally, a chance encounter with a new pils. Dublin's Persistence Brewing doesn't seem to get its beers into my usual haunts but I found P42 unexpectedly on tap at Jo'Burger in Smithfield. And very impressive it was too: it absolutely nails the Czech pale lager style, from the bags of damp grass in the aroma, to the flavour which piles more of that onto a sweet honeyish base. It's perfectly crisp and assertively bitter in a way not enough pilsners are, and works as both a sipper and a quaffer, depending on one's mood. There's even a rising note of diacetyl as it warms, which just serves to make it taste even more like Pilsner Urquell. My only other quibble was a slight plasticky twang on the end: the noble hops coming through just a smidge too loudly, but if that's the price of super Saaziness I'll take it.

Time to open another draft post to collect the next swathe of Irish randomers, but in the meantime, let's get back to the festival circuit.

19 October 2017

An American beer booth in Dublin

It was a very pleasant surprise to learn, in the run up to the 2017 Irish Craft Beer Festival, that the Brewers Association from the US would be taking a stall there. It seems to be a thing they do at festivals around Europe now, promoting their members' beers to the export market. For me, and probably most of the people who bellied up to the bar over the three days, it was an opportunity to try lots of American beers that we don't normally get over here.

The BA's London agent Lotte was pouring, and her first recommendation was Saison aux Baies Amères: Chokecherry from Left Hand. This is 6.8% ABV and a beautiful polished copper shade. It's raspingly dry at first, turning gradually sweeter as notes of honeydew and cantaloupe begin to emerge. There's a seam of summer berries running through it as well, as one might expect, but also a lot of boozy heat, the sort that turns me off high-strength saisons. Dropping the strength a few points would do it the world of good.

Utah's Epic Brewing garnered quite a bit of attention from the standers-by and no beer lit up so many faces as Elder Brett, their 9.4% ABV Bretted saison with elderflower. It's a bright pale yellow colour with a big funky aroma: loud and blousey from the word go. The flavour is sharp at first, with a hot and minerally diesel quality. This calms down after the initial hit, becoming more like a fruity Gewürztraminer or even light fino sherry. A green note of chard or bok choy helps offset the elder sweetness while the Brett funk plays solidly all the way through. It's tough going to drink; definitely a sipper; but absolutely worth it. Even a small taster goes a long way here.

So I expected big things from Hopulent, Epic's IPA. It wasn't my sort of thing, however. 8% ABV and all thickly toffeeish. It's a vernacular I keep thinking has died out in American brewing, and then being surprised to find it's still out there. This one is classically constructed and flawless, I guess, but not for me. Onwards.

New Belgium's Voodoo Ranger IPA is in a similar vein but I enjoyed it more. It's a percentage point lighter, for one thing, and has a bigger fresh hop aroma, even if it does smell more of garlic than citrus fruit. While still thick and heavy, the flavour profile is clean and the malt and hop elements are distinct. There's a old world herbal quality  -- swatches of thyme and mint -- that I found quite charming and which softens what I thought was going to be a much brasher beer. This still isn't the sort of IPA I would go for by choice, but it's well made for what it is.

The inevitable fruit IPA slot goes to Guava Islander by Coronado. Another 7%-er, more allium in the aroma, and more toffee in the flavour as well, which was especially surprising since it's a very pale beer. The brewer's blurb promises an experience "bursting with tropical goodness" but that's not what I found. There's a strange, but not unpleasant, peppery character, but not much else to separate it from the previous heavy malt-laden US IPAs.

Before turning to the dark side, the oddness of Ska Brewing's Pink Vapor Stew. Beetroot, carrot, apple and ginger with Belma and Citra hops on a massively sour base. As one might expect there's only room for some of that to actually come through to the drinker and I found it was the apple and ginger making the most noise. The sourness was almost at vinegar levels too, which turned something that could have been a fun mix of fruit and spices into a much more serious proposal that required careful sipping so as not to strip one's tooth enamel completely. I think I like the idea of the recipe more than I enjoyed the rather extreme beer which resulted.

To the porters and stouts then, and Pay It Forward, a porter with cocoa from West Sixth Brewing in Kentucky. This is an old fashioned dark brown colour with a tall layer of foam on top. There's a gorgeous smell of Fry's Turkish Delight from it, and this complentary combination of rosewater and dark chocolate continues into the flavour. A dry roasted finish helps keep it from becoming too sweet. The cocoa has been applied carefully and judiciously in this one, helping bring out the porter's essentially porteriness instead of trying to add a new dimension and spoiling it. I liked this a lot.

An imperial stout comes next: Wrecking Ball by No-Li Brewhouse up in Washington state. This is a very substantial 9.5% ABV and packs a whole lot of lovely complexity in there: thick ristretto coffee, bitter liquorice, spicy cigars and a sticky liqueur or fortified wine fruitiness. And yet despite this it's worrying light of texture and exceedingly easy to drink. It's just as well there was only a small sample available: that could have got messy.

I had never encountered beer from St. Louis's O'Fallon Brewery, but was interested in its Smoke Porter when it passed my way. There's too much smoke in it, however. It smells like smoky bacon crisps while it tastes of kippers. At the same time it's also very sweet -- too sweet -- and I ended up with an impression of smoked candyfloss. I don't mind very smoky beers and think subtlety is generally over-rated where they're concerned, but this was just way too full-on and far-out for me.

Lotte didn't want to let me try O'Fallon Pumpkin Beer. Sure nobody really likes pumpkin beer, do they? This one was pretty good, however, offering a range of lovely autumnal flavours like maple, brown sugar and sweet potato, as well as the inevitable cinnamon and nutmeg, but not too much of them. The sweetness here is better suited to the beer. Sneerers gonna sneer, but this did everything I want from a pumpkin beer and I feel not an ounce of shame about it.

Cheers to Lottle and the BA crew, and indeed to Bruce, Carly and all the brewers for yet another entertaining festival. I couldn't stay longer because Beavertown's Extravaganza in London was looming, and I'll get to that shortly.


18 October 2017

The regulars

Continuing this week's posts on the Irish Craft Beer Festival 2017 at the RDS, we come to the usual suspects, the breweries that show up year after year but always bringing new, interesting and experimental beer to liven up the offer.

Perhaps it's a bit cheeky of me to include Urban Brewing among them, since it was technically the first outing for the Docklands brewpub. But it had set up right next to its parent Carlow Brewing so I'm going to treat them as the same stand. Urban Brewing Double IPA was the new offer there. Haziness is still very much the house style at Urban and this 7.4%-er is a deep fuzzy orange. The flavour is a bit fuzzy too, blending marmalade citrus and grassy herbal notes on a big and chewy gut-warming base. Though properly bitter, its flavours don't have the proper distinctness that comes with pouring clean. Like pretty much every Urban Brewing offer so far, more time in the tank would definitely improve it.

There's a more deliberate haze in the new release from Carlow itself: Stormburst. Having received some (unfair) ridicule for invoking New England in the branding of its clear 51st State IPA, the brewery has now decided to get a bit closer to the spec. Stormburst definitely looks the part: a milky orange colour, barely letting light through. And there's the semi-official second signature of NEIPA in a smack of garlic, oddly juxtapositioned against some juicy manadarin. It's maybe a little understated compared to the way breweries with more craft cred and much bigger price tags do this sort of thing, but if you like the style and don't want to shell out the big bucks, this one walks the walk.

Eight Degrees is usually an early port of call for me at the RDS and they had one new seasonal and a festival special one-off on the go. Monsoon is the latest in the wind-themed IPA series and the first with added fruit. Mango and lime are the guilty parties here, though it's only really the latter that adds anything to the flavour: a sharp bitterness up front fading to pithy dryness at the end. It's not all about the acid, with the malt carrying a lime jelly flavoured sweet quality as well. In addition to the absent mango, I couldn't find much sign of the hops either, but despite this I enjoyed the overall quenching spritziness. IPA isn't always about the hops these days it seems.

The brewery acquired a Grainfather homebrew kit recently and used it to kick off what became a Pinot Barrel-Aged Stout. It débuted at ABVFest at the beginning of the month and followed that up with an appearance here. I wasn't wowed by it. It's very sweet, for one thing, packed with chocolate and caramel. There's also a sawdust flavour that I've come to associate with barrel-aged beers where the wood and liquid haven't really melded properly. Offsetting that there's also a rich balsamic edge, which is fun, but the whole picture just didn't hang together properly, I thought. I think I'd have been happier with just a straight stout.

The Boyne Brewhouse specials machine is still chugging away happily. On the roster here was the first Boyne Brewhouse Session IPA, hitting the style markers by being 4% ABV, pale yellow and lightly lemony. It does fall into the thinness trap, however: more bulking out would improve it.

On a less orthodox note there was Cascara Kölsch, which just sounded wrong from the start. Despite this, it once again meets the main style requirement extremely well: it's crisp, it's yellow, and the flavour balances dry grain with a gentle fruitiness. All very classic and refreshing. The coffee element is barely perceptible and I doubt I'd have noticed it if I hadn't been warned in advance. I still think it's probably best not to call something Kölsch if it's been hacked about with. Not hacking about with Kölsch is a fundamental aspect of the style.

Down to the breweries I only annoyed for one beer now. It was good to see N17 back in the hall, going for a 100% cask offer, and with a new beer too: Nut Brown Ale. The best part of this was the aroma, a beautifully rich warm chocolate effect, almost fattening -- a sensation that may have something to do with the robust 5.6% ABV. The flavour is somewhat plainer but still offers a tasty mix of milky coffee and succulent raisins. Above all it's smooth easy drinking, as a brown ale should be. Very nicely done and I hope to get the chance to drink a whole pint of it at some stage.

I didn't take the time to get the full story behind Killarney Brewing's Lemoncen, only that it's an IPA at 5% ABV and dry hopped. I liked it though; there's a classic blend of juicy mandarin, bitter citrus and a kind of minty herbal quality that intensifies to the point of real dankness at the end. No half measures here.

Trouble Brewing was touting its collaboration beer with Stillwater Artisanal, Killwater. It's a sour ale with hibiscus, so a cheery pink colour and with a pleasant tart aroma. It tastes sharp at first, but turns a bit claggy after that, heavy with syrup. An intense lemon pith bitterness helps cut through this, but it's still not easy drinking, at once pointy and severe while also overly sweet. I was after something mellower and this definitely wasn't it.

My last beer on my way out was The Rainmaker, a new US-style IPA at a full-on 7% ABV and utilising Citra, Mosaic and Galaxy hops. It's a pale and hazy yellow with a flavour -- even after a full evening on the beer -- that's clean and smooth. It does lean a little on the garlic and onion side of the hop profile, but I can forgive it as it's not overly bitter nor any way hot with alcohol. Good stuff.

But that's not the end of my account of the festival. There was one other bar I spent some time at, and it's getting a post of its own next.

17 October 2017

As fresh as they get

The Irish Craft Beer Festival at the RDS in Dublin last month saw the début of a brand new Irish brewery, so new it didn't have a logo on the substantial stand. It's always good to see the product come before the branding, and product it had.

Larkin's Brewing Company is based in Rathcoole, Co. Wicklow, and on this showing seems to have gone for continental lager styles as its speciality: a refreshing change, literally and metaphorically. There was an IPA, however. You have to have an IPA. Larkin's American IPA is a biggie at 6.8% ABV, with a slick greasy body, oozing with lupulous oils from the Simcoe, Citra and Mosaic hops employed. The aroma is funky and dank, almost to the point of being cheesy. A much cleaner flavour follows, however: a crisp and chalky alkaline effect. It's unorthodox for an IPA but bodes well when turning to the lagers.

Larkin's German Lager is where I actually started, and was very impressed. No real complexity or tricks here; no twists or turns, and certainly no off-flavours. This is a straight down the middle quality pils: clear gold, with a beautiful peppery rocket-like noble hop flavour at the centre. Magnificently refreshing and moreish with a flavour which shows enough hop boldness to keep the drinker entertained all the way through. Just 4.7% ABV too so I'd have had another except...

... my head was turned by Larkin's Schwarzbier. It's an extremely rare style in Ireland, for no good reason at all. Of those that make it out of Irish breweries, very few have the dry roasted crispness that I love in classics like Köstritzer. Sadly, the Larkin's version I got is no exception to this rule, although it was the tail end of the keg. I got a murky brown sample, with a flavour leaning heavy on chocolate. The darker, drier elements were in there, but too well hidden. I will be trying this again if it gets a more general release, but for the moment it's a very cautious welcome from me.

Inevitably there was Larkin's Kölsch and this was another elegantly executed version of a classic style. The carbonation was suitably low, and there was a pleasant mineral bite in the flavour, balancing the mild malt sweetness and enhancing the drinkability. A few more hops might improve it, but it delivers on what the style is supposed to offer much better than most imitations, and better even than a couple of Cologne originals too.

I was far from the only punter wowed by the offerings. Oddly, however, the beer that most commentators seemed impressed by was Larkin's Czech Amber. Now, polotmavý has never been my favourite type of beer -- it dilutes the good features of both Czech pale and dark lagers -- and this one was bang on style in that regard. There was nothing at all wrong with it: it's clean, dry, and with a touch of mild celery passing as a hop character, but I couldn't really get much else from it; it just passed over my palate and away without making an impact. Ireland doesn't need amber lager the way it needs schwarzbier, but I'm not going to complain about a well-made one if other folk are happy with it.

Larkin's seems to be pushing ahead with more in this vein: a doppelbock is in progress. What happens beyond the festival circuit largely remains to be seen, but I pray there's a market around here for unfussy and well made beer of this nature.

More from the RDS tomorrow...