29 December 2017

Gold stars

As usual, the last post of the year brings the Golden Pint Awards, begun by Andy Mogg and Mark Dredge back in 2009 and celebrating the best of the year's beers and beer-related places and events.

And as usual I'm compiling mine with the aid of a suitable beer. Two, actually, this year: the bottled winter specials from The Porterhouse. I start with Dark Star Ale, a big-hitting 11%-er. It's a deep shade of ruby making me think it's going to be along the lines of a barley wine. And there is a certain vinous quality: ripe fruit and tannins. The wine gets hacked into a vermouth shortly afterwards when a herbal bitterness is introduced. As it warms the drinker is taken on a tour of the luxury goods aisle, passing fine cigars, high-end chocolate and hand-tooled leather. For all that, it's clean and easy drinking; the sweet dark malts don't build on the palate, getting thoroughly scrubbed off by the bitterness on each mouthful. It's a serious beer, but very tasty. It left me very curious about how it would fare after whiskey maturation, and I love that I didn't have to wait to find out.

Now that The Porterhouse has its own distillery in Kerry, the whiskey version is of course called Dingle Dark Star. It picks up an extra ABV point from the process though looks exactly the same. Honeyish Irish whiskey is very present on the nose but the difference is less apparent on tasting. It still has the raisins and the chocolate, it's just now there's an extra honeycomb complexity. Perhaps the biggest change is that it's smoother: all the hard bitter edges have been rounded off, quite pleasingly. The alcohol comes to the fore, and it feels much denser than the unbarrelled version, though also less complex. Anyone who wanted the previous one to be more stout-like will be comforted by this, and while it's lovely I'm personally not sure it's an improvement on the original. Still, it's an enjoyable slow sipper, which is exactly what's required as I face into:

The Golden Pint Awards 2017

Best Irish Cask Beer: Ursa Major
It's been a good year for Irish cask overall, and special mention needs to go to O Brother first of all for their consistent supply of cask beer throughout 2017. My single favourite was the strong brown porter from YellowBelly which I drank at the Franciscan Well cask festival this year. A further commendation goes to Trouble Brewing's Walk On the Mild Side too, even if it was improved by kegging.

Best Irish Keg Beer: The Harvest King
There were a remarkable number of world-class keg beers this year, especially in the sour and Bretted category. The White Hag's Olcan and Kinnegar's Phunk Bucket were both stunning at Hagstravaganza, and both are still around in bottled form -- try them if you see them. However it was YellowBelly (again) who made me put my glass down and say "wow".

Best Irish Bottled Beer: Independent Coconut Porter
Cheating because I drank this (copiously) when it was on draught, and loved it, but it also exists bottled and has just been re-released. Designed for those who don't tolerate half measure when it comes to coconut in beers.

Best Irish Canned Beer: The Fresh Prince of Kildare
Again, I probably had more of this triple IPA on draught than canned, and the canned version was slightly different, though still excellent. Dead Centre's début Marooned was another metal-jacketed delight this year.

Best Overseas Draught: Timmermans Oude Lambiek 2014
This was a surprise tick, presented by Thomas of John Martin's brewery at the EBCU meeting in Brussels back in April. I presume the brewery has vast foeders full of the stuff but have no idea how available it is. Well worth checking out if you see it, however. A special mention goes to Hill Farmstead's Florence.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer: Druif
Another sour one? Yeah, I guess. New Dutch brewer Tommie Sjef was pouring this at Borefts in September. You can't beat a grape lambic(ish) for accessible complexity, or complex accessibility, for that matter. Other bottled eye-openers this year came from Epic with their Elder Brett and the amazing 2008 vintage of Cantillon's Lou Pepe Kriek.

Best Overseas Canned Beer: Pay It Forward
I had never heard of West Sixth Brewing in Kentucky before this cocoa-infused porter of theirs landed at the RDS in September, courtesy of the Brewers Association, and jolly good it was too.

Best Collaboration Brew: Touching the Scald
Perfection in a pint glass at 4% ABV. Props to Galway Bay and Whiplash for making it, and brown malt takes the Golden Pint Award for Best Malt, 200th year running.

Best Overall Beer: Independent Coconut Porter
Drinkability is the deciding criterion here, which means it came down to a straight fight between the Coconut Porter and Touching the Scald. Independent tips it on the complexity, so gets the prize. All great beer, the winner is the consumer, etc etc.

Best Branding: Whiplash
Gorgeous surreal and abstract collage artwork next to clean type on a white background. 2D photos (especially mine) don't do the Whiplash cans justice. A shout out goes to Hopfully, who have an art commissioner on the payroll and some really engaging design as a result.

Best Pump Clip: Holden
I liked the beer much more than the novel, but this artwork from O Brother captured the essence of the character perfectly, I thought. Whiplash's recent Scaldy Split gets a very honourable mention: I like the literalism of the interpretation.

Best Bottle Label: Marooned
Bottle? The can is the canvas these days. Brightly coloured squiggly artwork, as popularised by the Scandinavian brewers in particular, has become the universal indication that the contents of this tin are worthy of your time. I love how Dead Centre has ignored all of the fashion and gone with a handsome and minimalist monochrome design. The beer is pretty decent too.

Best Irish Brewery: Trouble Brewing
Seems to me the lads in Kill have had a pretty good year (and not just because they finally got rid of that Guilfoyle fella, lol, bantz). 2017 began with the arrival of Ambush which has quickly become a staple wherever good beer is served. The introduction of cans, and the range they selected to put in them, expanded their packaged offer from supermarket standards to fancy-dan craft. And there was the aforementioned cask mild, and Parklife, and Get Schwifty, while the existence of Graffiti, Dark Arts and Vietnow continued unabated. Something sour and hoppy would be appreciated, but they have sufficient bases covered to earn this Golden Pint, I think.

Best Overseas Brewery: Brew By Numbers
They seem to have disappeared from Ireland, unfortunately, but kept popping up on my travels during the year. In 2017 I had the pleasure of various BBNo beers in Holland, Italy, as well as their Bermondsey tap rooms. 05|25 was my standout, redefining murky IPA for me, but they have plenty of other wonderful stuff too.

Best New Brewery Opening 2017: Hopfully
The year of Dublin brewing that I had been predicting since 2015 finally sort-of materialised. I had hopes of two new brewpubs in the city but had to make do with one, in the form of Urban Brewing. Hopfully gets my Golden Pint, however, for nailing it from day one. Chris made some brave choices in the recipes he has launched with, and this beetroot saison drinker is especially happy with them.

Pub/Bar of the Year: The Taphouse
Events, dear boy. The Taphouse celebrates... has been a marvellous feature of the local beer calendar, and the hospitality shown by Adam and his crew has been exceptional. Obvious but completely heartfelt shouts-out go to The Black Sheep and 57 The Headline, both still doing the thing they do brilliantly. And a nod to my international discoveries of the year, DeRat in Utrecht, Zum Franziskaner in Stockholm and LambicZoon in Milan.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2017: UnderDog
Oh you didn't think I'd forgotten it, did you? Even though it only opened in July I've possibly spent more time in UnderDog than any other pub this year. In my first post about it I opined that the real-time online beer list might encourage more beer specialists in Dublin to do the same. Lo and behold, several Galway Bay bars now publish a live list, while other pubs are using Find My Pint to do it. Keep it up, everyone.

Beer Festival of the Year: Toer de Geuze
It's somewhat arguable as to whether this counts as a festival, but the big marquee at Boon certainly felt like one. Also the fact that transport is organised by enthusiasts -- the Lambicstoempers -- really adds to the sense of festive merriment. So it's a festival. And, like the best festivals, affords attendees the opportunity to taste some of the world's truly great beers. I hope to be back in 2019 to finish the venues I missed.

Supermarket of the Year: Fresh, Smithfield
I thought SuperValu on Sundrive Road was going to edge it this time, but they dropped the ball towards the end of the year. They're also fighting a tough battle trying to interest my neighbourhood in better beer. Fresh, meanwhile, has done an amazing job, rivalling many an independent for selection, availability of new releases, and personal service. They've taken this Golden Pint almost every year since 2013 and deserve it now more than ever. A special hat-tip goes to drinks manager Carlos here.

Independent Retailer of the Year: DrinkStore
Same old, same old, though now with a new website and more visible pricing in-store. A place I shouldn't take for granted. I'm not sure whether I'm permitted to offer an honourable mention to Molloy's on Francis Street since it's part of a chain, but I'm going to anyway as I found it particularly good for finding things this year.

Online Retailer of the Year: Martin's of Fairview
More business as usual: I still don't buy beer on the Internet, although somebody recently bought me a six-pack of Little Fawn via Martin's (cheers Will!) and it arrived and was very nice. A Golden Pint for you.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: 20th Century Pub by Boak & Bailey
Another more-or-less default one, I'm afraid. Pocket Beer Book (aka Best Beers in North America) 3rd ed. by Beaumont and Webb was fun for dipping (disclosure: contains stuff by me), however B&B's exhaustively researched and entertainingly written history of the English pub from the Victorian gin palace to the modern craft bar was my favourite. Alas I have not yet got around to Pete Brown's Miracle Brew so it gets precluded from this category through no fault of its own.

Best Beer Blog or Website: The Beer Monopoly
The aforementioned Dr. Webb put me on to this site back in the spring. It offers a very handy monthly summation of the global goings-on in beer, particularly among the brewing giants. I make extensive use of it when compiling the EBCU news page, if you'd prefer a more subscribable news source.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: BreitTank
It's gone a little quiet lately, but this account has definitely been the beer commentary for the times we live in during 2017.

Best Brewery Website/Social media: Eight Degrees
Of the Irish breweries knocking out specials and one-offs on the regular, Eight Degrees appears to be the only one consistently publishing descriptions and vital statistics of each and every one. Yes it's the exact same reason I gave them this award in 2015, but it's still as important now. Everyone else, please try harder for the beer-buying nerds.

And on that begging note, thanks for reading throughout 2017 and have a happy New Year.

28 December 2017

Dash away all

I didn't really set out to do a full week of Irish beer reviews, but it looks to be turning out that way. Strap in. I'm trying to clear my backlog of 2017 releases ahead of my final decisions for this year's Golden Pints Awards, published here tomorrow. Today's post concerns the beers I found on the last dash around Dublin, getting Christmas sorted before I left the country for the holiday.

To begin, a not-so-seasonal raspberry blonde ale. Fruitopia Rising is from Kelly's Mountain brewery, created in collaboration with the Hellfire Brew Club, a group who proved themselves champions of fruit beer in Ireland with their kiwi and lime pale ale at Sullivan's earlier in the year. It crackled out of the glass, not gushing per se, but creating an inconvenient quantity of stiff white foam over the hazy orange-pink body. The aroma is superbly real: fresh and ripe raspberries, all of the juice with none of the tartness. It unravels rather on tasting. The raspberry is present, but I got a major smoky twang, suggesting an infection. That would also explain the fizz. It's a shame because it's obvious that there's a well-designed recipe behind this: using a simple 4.8% ABV blonde as a launchpad for luscious fruit. That flashes on the palate briefly before the acrid ashen off-flavour takes over. Maybe I just got unlucky with the bottle that Hellfire Will gave me; it would still be worth taking a chance on if you see it.

And on the theme of what-you-could-have-won, Will also gave me a bottle of a raspberry saison, a prototype of the recipe that they decided not to scale up. I can see why they went with the blonde. The drier saison sucks more of the juice out of the raspberries while the additional hot esters add a conflicting flavour. It's still pretty good, and I wouldn't swerve off raspberry saisons based on it, but blonde ale was the right choice.

Also being brave with fruit this winter was James Brown Brews, launching an Orange & Juniper IPA, in collaboration with host brewery Reel Deel. This is a whopping 6.5% ABV, though quite insubstantial for all that: thin of body with little malt character. Orange is what the flavour is all about, starting on a note of candied orange peel before turning bitterer with a kind of rock shandy effect, though dosed with aspirin. It's clean and refreshing for sure, but ultimately not terribly interesting, lacking any IPA features for one thing, and juniper for another. It could do with beefing up on all fronts, except maybe the strength.

Back to the raspberries, then, and a Raspberry Hibiscus Saison launched in a very limited edition by Rascals, with most of the batch destined for wine barrel ageing. This one is sweet and jammy, with the hibiscus adding a cherry note to the already-strong raspberry. There's a slightly dry and funky farmyard base but it doesn't play a major part, at least not yet. The addition of Brettanomyces and some Sangiovese oak exposure is bound to make it seriously interesting.

This was at UnderDog, where I also got the scrapings of the mini oak cask of Bourbon Milkshake Stout that was set up on the bar, which is what's in the other glass there. This still has all the sweet milk chocolate flavour of the original (reviewed last month here) but there's loads of sour and woody bourbon too. It's interesting, but I don't know if it's necessarily better. A more mature canned version will be out in January.

For more immediate maturity, presenting Harmonic Convergence, new out from Galway Bay (in association with Boundary) but having spent the last year in bourbon barrels. It's a barley wine and was an acceptable, if unattractive, murky brown-red when I met it on draught at The Black Sheep. Even ice cold I got a proper gobful of the rich oaky Rioja effect the barrel has given it. It tastes every point of its 12% ABV yet is so supremely smooth there's no boozy harshness. When it warmed up enough for an aroma to form it smelled like a bourbon and Coke: that mix of sugar, herbs and real whisky. The flavour, meanwhile, developed subtle liquorice, raisin and old wood in dark cellars. I'm sorry that you've missed your chance to get a bottle of this in for Christmas Day (and well done if you did), but I honestly think it's worth drinking young. I find it hard to believe that further maturation will improve it. Perhaps I'm wrong. Buy a few and find out.

What Else Is New? is probably the question most frequently asked of Whiplash, and also the title of their first quadrupel, brewed in association with Sweden's Beerbliotek. They've included figs in the recipe, which seems strange as fig is a flavour I associate with quadrupel anyway. Why add more? Anyway, the beer is 9% ABV and a handsome clear mahogany colour. It seems a bit strange pouring an established continental style from a trendy 440ml can, but that's where we are now. The aroma is autumnal: all treacle and bonfires. You can add maple syrup and toffee apples when factoring the flavour in. For all that, it's not thick or sweet: there's a sharp cleansing greenness which I'm guessing is the rye at work, and the texture is remarkably light. I found myself yearning for something bigger, rounder and, well, hotter. This is an angular Scandi-chic version of the style; impeccably designed but not as comfortable as an original, I think. So what else is new?

Well, Scaldy Split is the newest Whiplash to come my way so far. It's badged as an "ice cream IPA", which gave me pause but I needn't have worried. While it's as murky as might be expected, the lactose and vanilla contribute next to nothing to the flavour, and I don't think the orange zest is pulling its weight either. This novelty IPA actually tastes like an IPA, dominated by bitter lime and savoury garlic. The hops do fade quite quickly, leaving the finish sweet, and maybe there's a hint of that missing zest, but this too disappears cleanly and neatly without gumming up the palate. Gimmick-chasers may be disappointed; I really enjoyed it for a mostly no-nonsense hopped-up American-style IPA.

Before that landed there was Fatal Deviation, an imperial stout which pays tribute to Ireland's best-known B-movie. It's a straightforward 10% ABV, single-hopped with Columbus and featuring my good friend brown malt alongside pilsner, aromatic and chocolate varieties. So, yes, it's sweet, but it's no sticky sugar-bomb. The hops give it an edgy jasmine and eucalyptus perfume, and that sits next to a decadent mix of espresso and gallic cigarettes. Beyond that there's not much happening, which felt disappointing for a second but maybe I've been too conditioned by the De Molen flavourbombs which make up most of my imperial stout drinking. There's not a damn thing wrong with this one: properly complex with no gimmicks or unbalancing noises. Bualadh bos.

That left me in a mood for further big and dark so I opened Lough Gill's Imperial Chocolate Cherry Porter next, no. 3 of its big and dark series. Neither chocolate nor cherries appear on the list of ingredients, which at first I took as a typographical oversight, but then neither made any real impact in the taste either. Instead there's a dirty, gritty savoury yeast twang that was immediately off-putting. The beer was almost at room temperature by the time I came back to it and now I could taste cherries, but in a harshly sour form. This is set against sweet and syrupy malt and the whole thing is jarring and awkward, not the sumptuous and silky delight that a 10% ABV porter ought to be. In fact this is downright rough. Lough Gill's Rebel Stout Series could do with backing up a little.

I regroup with a lager, Kinnegar's second: Noch Eins helles. It's always a crisis pouring Irish-craft-brewed pale lagers, trying to keep the sediment out of the glass. That doesn't tend to be an issue with the German ones. Anyway, I made a mess of it and got a murky glassful for my trouble, the foam crackling away to nothing quite quickly. Few marks for appearances, then. It smells proper, however, with the style's correct mix of biscuit malt spiced with thirst-inducing herb aromas. The herbs dominate the flavour, giving it an out-of-sorts medicinal edge, though finishing on a cleaner grassy note. It lacks the cakey malt character of good helles and is disappointingly thin. The medicine begins turning to full-on TCP as it goes and the whole thing started to bug me when I was two-thirds of the way down. Looking back, I had similar qualms about Kinnegar's first lager too. Stop bottle-conditioning them would be my recommendation, but what do I know?

A neglected bottle of White Gypsy Harvest Ale followed that. The brewery has got out of the hop farming business but has brewed this as a tribute to the growers who make beer possible, selecting malt and hops each from a single farm. The hops for this first edition (I assume there'll be others) are from Žalec in Slovenia and are a mix of Gold, Bobek, Fox and Cardinal. Bobek is the only variety I'd heard of. Anyway, another messy pour by me, I'm afraid, resulting in sludgy orangey-brown effort. The aroma is a strange mix of fruit and funk, like a greengrocer's on the turn. It's not unpleasant though. The flavour is strange to say the least: a complex mix of rye bread crusts, grapefruit segments, chalk, black tea and animal hide. Each element is distinct and clean. It's almost too weird to be enjoyable but I got a thrill out of it. Evidently these Slovenian hops provide flavours to which my delicate western palate is unaccustomed. I definitely want more, though. The plain rustic branding here hides a much more exciting beer behind it. Enter with an open mind.

The same goes for my 2017 Golden Pints awards, by the way, which will follow presently. Try not to get too excited.

27 December 2017

Most urbane

I noted, about a month ago, that things were on the up at Urban Brewing. I've been keeping an eye on progress since then and am pleased to report that matters continue to advance. I have a total of nine new beers to report on today: that's the way to brewpub properly.

First to cross my path was the Wee Heavy, one of those makey-uppy BJCP styles that are popular abroad but rarely seen here. It arrived (in the middle there) looking like a stout: black with a nitrogenated head. There's a fair amount of roast in the flavour too, but it's definitely not a stout. Toffee is the main act, sweet but clean and not cloying. There's no off-putting alcohol heat, presumably due to the modest 6.4% ABV. It would be quite plain fare except for the smack of bitter liquorice in the finish which adds interest and intrigue. This maybe lacks the warming qualities that might be expected, but on the other hand they were serving it by the pint so pitching for drinkability was probably the smarter move.

Upping the alcohol slightly we come to Writer's Bock at 6.7% ABV, on the right. It's another mostly-clean one -- lagered, I assume -- though there's a headachey phenolic twang running through it. The centre mixes mild caramel with the green veg of noble hops. The coppery colour ill-fits it for the German heller bock style, but I think that's the purported style. It certainly doesn't fit the dunkler bock or Dutch autumn bock moulds. One to just drink and not worry about sub-style niceties, I guess. I enjoyed it, overall.

Third in this trilogy, to the left of the picture, is a Mandarin & Juniper Pale Ale. "Loads of both" say my notes, matter-of-factly. There's a big and sweet juicy jaffa element, and a bitterer, herbal flavour from the juniper berries to balance it. The botanical side is so pronounced I'd swear there's rosemary in it too, but that appears to be just my imagination. I like the mix of boldness and balance in this, as well as the quaffable 4.5% ABV. Very nicely done.

Some proper hops next (hopefully), and Eureka! Pale Ale. This one is a little watery, the flavour showing some Sorachi-style orange pith, building to become bitterer resins. It's predominantly dry, which does help the hops come to the fore, unencumbered by malt, though that does reduce the overall character. I appreciate that it's just 4.6% ABV but I tend to want bigger and bolder from single-hop beers like this. As-is, it seems to be designed much more as a fire-and-forget quaffer.

The appearance of a Pine Needle Saison had me high-tailing down the quays for a try. This is an easy-going 4.8% ABV, hazy yellow in colour with a smooth texture and low carbonation. It's dry and funky, like clean straw with just a very mild wintergreen spicing in the finish, though only if you go looking for it. Like a needle in a hayloft... There's something else a bit strange lurking in the flavour that I couldn't put my finger on: not quite chlorine and not quite salt; strange but not upsetting. Overall it's another enjoyable one, the farmyard characteristic being its best and most distinct feature. Those needle foragers could have saved themselves some time, or worked harder, I guess.

Looking almost identical but very different under the bonnet was the Strawberries & Cream Cream Ale. The words "cream ale" always put me on high alert for grainy cheap-tasting beer. This one, however, uses the basic style as a launchpad for its massive strawberry flavour. The intensity is such that I'm genuinely surprised the beer isn't pink. The first hint of what was to come was the powerful aroma, sweet and concentrated, like tinned strawberries. The flavour unfolds along these lines with a kind of '80s fakeness. Think Angel Delight or the Birdseye Sweet Trolley. A soft texture adds to the lurid cheesecake effect, finishing with a crisp grainy bite before it gets sticky or unpleasant. It's a very silly beer but I really liked it. The Urban brewers seem to have more fun with fruit than any other ingredient.

My next visit was just a couple of weeks ago, when the Christmas crowds were beginning to fill the place out. I started with Nutcracker. Quite an involved recipe is touted for this hazelnut brown ale, claiming cinnamon, honey, clove and coriander. Almost all of that gets lost, leaving just a pleasantly herbal vibe: bitter and piney; the coriander adding that signature soapy note it likes to ruin beers with. This isn't ruined, however. The headline nuttiness is present from the beginning, if rather more like chewy roasted chestnut than hazelnut. The ABV is a manageable 5.3% and while it could stand to be a bit more complex, it's not the messy confection that this sort too often are.

A Belgian Dubbel followed. It's remarkably pale: more a bright orange colour than typically brown. The scaled-back 6.5% ABV is not unrelated, I'm sure. It does taste properly dark, however, full of sweet and chewy toffee and fudge. Where ripe dark fruit should be there's a nondescript Belgian ester quality, turning a little unpleasantly to marker pens. It doesn't upset the overall picture, however. This is another very decent dark and drinkable one.

And I thought I was done at that point. But early last week they announced another new addition and off I went for a sup. This was the alluringly-titled Rooibos Wheat and I'll be honest: I thought this one would be pink. It's not though, more an orangey-beige colour, harking back to the murky Urban brews of yestermonth. The texture matches the look, being creamy with a lacing of vanilla. It's basically a weissbier at its core, highly gassy with a flavour centring on banana, though there's a more interesting seam of strawberry around the edges, plus a sweet and mildly eggy meringue or flip quality. It works quite well and I definitely wouldn't classify the opaqueness as a flaw here. At the same time I probably wouldn't drink more than one, and that as a dessert.

2018 should be an interesting one at Urban, with yet more recipes and hopefully the fruits of its basement barrel ageing programme coming up the stairs. I'll be there when they do.

26 December 2017

Boxing night

Another seasonal post for all you Christmas shut-ins, this one with a particular dark and wintry theme.

Only one side of that equation applies to JW Sweetman Winter Saison. Though certainly darker than a typical saison, it's still a hazy golden amber. It earns its seasonal stripes with a dense and warming body plus a generous ABV of 5.8%. With that comes a lot of banana-ish ester, to the point of creating a first impression that's more like a weissbier. A more typical grainy dryness is present, and especially in the finish, but it doesn't do enough to balance the palate-clogging fruity sweetness. One pint does give the drinker a warming glow but I wouldn't be ordering a second.

It's hard to believe that no Irish brewer had co-opted the name Winter Is Coming for a seasonal, but 12 Acres got there first, releasing a 5.2% ABV oatmeal porter. This is a handsome dark brown shade, with a short-lived tan head. The flavour starts sweet, full of summery strawberries, before taking a bitter turn, finishing on a somewhat metallic tang. The texture is perhaps its strongest feature, getting full value out of that oatmeal for a silky creamy quality. A chocolate flavour develops and intensifies as it warms, while the metallic hit I got on the first sip rounds out into a gentler coffee bitterness. I felt there was more going on that I was missing because of the cold kegged dispense. If the brewery has the wherewithal to cask it I think it would improve it even further. As-is, you still get everything you'd expect from an oatmeal porter.

The Porterhouse has no fewer than three winter specials out this year, though two of them are still sitting bottled in my fridge at time of writing; expect reviews later this week. The new Winter Stout was draught only, nitro of course, but the brewery has a knack of making that work for them. Although this one is a sizeable 6.5% ABV, I was expecting it to be little different to the Porterhouse's other well-established stouts. It certainly looked the part when my pint of snow-capped obsidian was slid across the bar in the Parliament Street branch. The distinguishing feature here is a plummy fruit element which sits next to a gentle chocolate wheatiness. There's no trace of the alcohol, nor really of the promised warmth, but it's still a reliable Porterhouse stout with a discernible and fun twist. The nitro does have a muting effect, however, and I'd like to try this bottled.

The award for most intriguing name of the season goes to Larkin's for its Roasted Winter Lager, on draught at 57 The Headline last week. The Wicklow lagermeister has created another beauty here, even if the head retention is rather poor. Beyond that it's a beautifully balanced black lager, opening on a chorus of fresh coffee flavours, turning to sweet cookies with a dusting of chocolate on top. That sounds like a recipe for over-sweetness but it's beautifully clean and extremely drinkable. Happily also the ABV is just 4.5% ABV. This one is light and refreshing enough to be a dark lager for all seasons.

YellowBelly's foray into the dark for winter 2017 was a new version of The Night Porter, served up at their tap takeover in the Beer Market at the beginning of the month. It too was served on nitro and suffered badly because of it: I got a mix of crêpe paper, putty and a savoury beefiness, all things that go wrong with porter, with none of the redeeming features. There's nothing jarringly off about it, but nothing to rescue it either. Yet again I'm blaming the dispense.

Night Pod is Western Herd's enigmatic contribution to the season, a vanilla-infused porter which showed up at 57 The Headline. As expected it's very sweet, at least to begin with, and I got an almost Easter-egg milk chocolate impression from the foretaste. Then it suddenly changes direction, finishing very dry and roasty with a substantial bitterness. Much as I'd like to describe that as balance, the contrast is just too severe and the whole thing lacks integration. Bottle it and age it? Yeah, I think there's a theme emerging here...

Completing the "Night" trilogy is The Nightcrawler, a 4.8% ABV milk stout from O Brother. Nitro again but this is much more like it, with a fantastic hop-derived complexity of lavender and meadowy flowers, while also making full use of the dispense to turn thick, creamy and satisfying, yet very moreish and sessionable. Nitro milk stouts are ten-a-penny these days but few are as fun and interesting as this one.

And breaking from the naming convention but still every inch a winter beer is Hope Imperial Oatmeal Stout, number eight in the Dublin brewery's limited edition series, this one a collaboration with DOT Brew. It gloops out of the glass, leaving a jet black glassful topped with a dark tan head. Brown malt appears on the helpfully detailed list of ingredients and I'm guessing it's that which gives it a fresh roasted coffee flavour. The texture adds a creamy quality to the picture, and a warming alcohol burr Irishes it up a little. The soothing smoothness is spoiled a little by a burnt rasping dryness on the finish, but otherwise it's a beaut. Brown malt wins the day again.

Strong, dark and bottled is the optimum setting for winter seasonals, it seems. Everything else is trickier to get right.

25 December 2017

From under the tree

Merry Christmas! You should be at least three sheets by the time you get around to reading this. Perhaps you're just taking a breather in a cool and quiet corner somewhere while the holiday rages around you. If so: hello! Here are some of the beers that Ireland's breweries have served up to me in recent weeks.

Eight Degrees, to begin, released a pair of large bottles as their 2017 Christmas offering, though both have also been making appearances on draught. I caught up with them at Mitchelstown's Fanah Fest at the end of November, marking the brewery's move to its new home a few hundred metres from the old one, and the completion of its impressive new (second-hand) 60hL brewhouse.

Handed out on arrival was The Oak King, described rather anodynely as a "Belgian pale ale", this one came out at 6.5% ABV after being aged in French white wine barrels and inoculated with Brettanomyces C. It's a dark orange colour with a flavour which blends beautifully the juicy green grape and heady funk. Though very drinkable, it rewards slowing sipping, each one bringing tiny explosions of different flavours, including diesel, white pepper and peaches. Think Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans, in beer form. It was particularly interesting how, even super-fresh at the brewery, the bottled version had already developed a greater complexity than the draught, seeming somehow brighter and more vibrant in its flavours. Still superb in either format, though.

Its twin (it's a mythology thing; read the label) is The Holly King, a big ol' imperial stout at 9.8% ABV, from Pinot Noir barrels with yet more Brett. Our funky microbial friend gets all her business done in the aroma, leaving a flavour that mixes chocolate sauce, heavy red wine and sappy wood, with just the merest hint of farmyard seasoning. Overall I found it a bit sweet, which is why I made sure to buy a bottle. I think the Brett just needs more time to chomp through the sugars and add more to the flavour, so I'm going to leave it a while and come back to it. Look out for a review on Stash Killer!... eventually.

Beer of the day at Fanah Fest was Warrior, one the brewery has chosen to badge as an Irish red but is way more interesting than that. Big, classic US hops open it out: Nugget and Cascade, says the official description. They blend with, and balance against, a sweet and fruity malt flavour, reminding me a lot of classic American amber ale, except with a long and hard bitterness, more like a red IPA. A fun pine-perfume spritz finishes it off. Mr Macardle's-Drinker will find a lot to contend with in this Irish red but I thought it was very well put-together.

An Eight Degrees footnote, which should really have been the prologue, is Enigma Single Hop IPA. I drank this before I published my last big round-up of Irish beers, but my incompetent secretary lost my notes on it. When they turned up, they spoke glowingly of the deliciously spiky red cabbage foretaste and the sweet and sticky middle, like an orange ice pop. The best of these Eight Degrees single-hoppers show a gorgeous tongue-pinching bitterness, and this one does too. While there's no arguing with the hop rate, that sticky fruit thing does get a little too cloying a little too quickly: I'd prefer lighter and drier, but overall a big thumbs up.

But back to the reds, and a new one from White Gypsy that also manages to make the most of the style. At 5.6% ABV Big Fat Red is a strong-ish example which I found on tap at UnderDog, the pale pink shade of freshly polished copper. Flavourwise it is exactly as advertised: masses of sweet ripe strawberry on a heavy chewy body. A bitter metallic finish prevents it getting sticky or cloying. It's very much still an Irish red, and does everything the good ones do, just more of it.

Perhaps more a late-autumn seasonal, but still around, is the latest iteration of Wicklow Wolf's annual Locavore series. They've put their home-grown hops into a saison this year: 5.7% ABV and a hazy pale amber colour. There's bags of banana, front and centre, in the flavour. Thankfully the rest of the beer is dry and crisp enough to carry it, and there's even a lip-smacking layer of farmhouse funk, a spicy gunpowder bite, as well as an honest-to-goodness bitter kick from the Irish hops. Although it's heavier than I tend to like saison to be, it's a damn good example and very much not just a hop gimmick.

A quick visit to Bar Rua last month turned up a new one from owner Carrig: Oceania Hop Parade. It writes a big cheque with that name but unfortunately the beer cannot cash it. I got next to no flavour from the first couple of sips, though a light lemon curd and vanilla ice cream sensation emerged shortly afterwards. Riding roughshod over this is a massive dirty dreggy yeast flavour. It could well be that the beer is deliberately murky in line with modern IPA fashion but it definitely does not have a sufficient hopping rate to cover this.

Just around the corner, in Stephen Street News, I picked up the newly-released Voodoo Logic, a 10.1% ABV maple syrup imperial stout and the first of Trouble's new canned series to not appear on draft first. I think it may be the first of their beers I've only had at home. From the beginning of the pour it's clear it's a beast: the head is very dark and has multiple layers of cascading bubbles. I was anticipating density. Sure enough, it's like drinking jam. The finishing gravity must have been off the scale. The alcohol heat hits first, followed by a dry and tarry roast. There's a sweet fruit element behind this: damson jam, quince jelly and Nutella. A dry smoky rasp finishes it. It's nice, but to be honest, for the strength and almost €7 a can, I expected more happening. While unarguably good, it's not quite in the international league, in the way Trouble's recent IPAs have been.

Meanwhile, on draught, Trouble had another new stout, Peanut Butter Jelly Time, brewed as a collaboration with Storm Crow brewing just before Jason left Ireland for Atlanta. It's a modest 5.4% ABV with an unexpected but tasty spicy foretaste, like chilli flakes. For something that's technically a pastry stout it's not very sweet, with only mild hints of raspberry jam and peanut butter, then finishing with a properly grown-up dryness. If novelty flavoured stouts bother you, it's perfectly possible to ignore that aspect of this one, though the pastry features are present to be enjoyed also.

A new can from Boyne Brewhouse surprised me in the local Tesco. 6 for €10? Yoink! Boyne Brewhouse American Pale Ale is an innocent 4.5% ABV and a mildly murky off-gold colour. The aroma is pleasingly peachy though unfortunately the bit of the can which should be telling me about the hops is full of bollocks about some mythical Celtic fairy overlord. Lads. Anyway, I'm guessing Mosaic plays a part, right on the cusp between juicy melon and dry sesame seeds. The bitterness is quite sharp, in an old fashioned APA sort of way, though the hop flavour is thoroughly modern otherwise. A lovely soft texture and gentle fizz makes for very easy session drinking. It's not exciting, but very decent, especially for the price.

Along similar lines was Spot On, a 4.8% ABV pale ale from Dublin client brewer Two Sides, which showed up on tap at 57 The Headline. This has a mix of flowers and herbs that reminded me of an old-school English bitter. It's certainly bitter enough, and with a soft effervescent texture. While easy drinking, the flavour is sufficiently assertive to be properly interesting.

It's always great to see a new Irish pilsner and I was all over Galway Bay's Nuzoz Pilz when it appeared at The Black Sheep. As the name sort-of implies, it's made with Antipodean hops, and I think that's also its undoing. Clearly a lot of hops went into this, and the resulting flavour is a riot of fruits: apricot and mandarin, mostly, with a hint of drier hay. The soft and sweet fruit builds as it goes, producing a sticky cordial effect that tars over the clean lager base. The final picture is much more a Down-Under pale ale, which has its place and is perfectly acceptable drinking, but it completely misses the mark as a pils, which is disappointing.

I had a much happier time with Tartín, the latest dry-hopped sour beer from Galway Bay. It doesn't go to town with either the hopping or the sourness, balancing both elements deftly in an approachable 4.5% ABV package. It's pale yellow in colour with a certain briny quality, like you might find in a gose. The texture is beautifully soft, and a clean lemon-sherbet tang hits the palate first, finishing on sweeter tinned fruit. This is very easy-drinking refreshment, and reminded me of the wonderful 303 sour pale ale that made summer 2016 for me. I hope this one will be around longer.

I couldn't finish one of these random round-ups without some YellowBelly, so here's Hopped in Space, a 5.9% ABV IPA, employing Mandarina Bavaria, Simcoe and Summit. It goes quite heavy on the malt too, Cara Red giving it a darkish tint, and the first impression being sweetness. A whack of grapefruit lands next, then piney resin, but the hops are never allowed to dominate, held in balance by all that malt, avoiding becoming harsh. I liked it, finding it balanced and even more like a classic American amber ale than Warrior reviewed above. It's boldly flavoured yet accessible, which I'm guessing is why they've done a done a full scale can release. Get it while it's fresh, though.

And there's more from YellowBelly in tomorrow's post, when I look at some recent dark and wintry specials.

22 December 2017

American sour story

Two American sour beers today. Well, sour-ish. Neither seems to be going all-out for the pucker, both being from sane and established breweries with European capital helping them do their thing.

Dark Swan from Lagunitas is first. It's purple, so presumably there's some fruit addition but there's no mention of that on the label. Between-sentence research reveals it to be grapes. Sounds good. The result is rather plain, however. There's a grainy twang to the sourness, like in a classic Berliner weisse. The fruit is barely apparent in the taste, coming through as a mild blackcurrant jam flavour, suggesting grape concentrate rather than ripe fruit. It was all a rather simple and quite enjoyable affair until I noticed, in the small print, that it's a thoroughly unreasonable 8.5% ABV. If you want to go to Falling Down Town quickly, this beer will get you there faster than any yet devised: it really tastes like a sub-4% 2D quaffer. I kept having to remind myself that it's not. It's easy-going, fine and unexciting. Just be careful.

Round two is Founders, and Green Zebra, a gose with, for some reason, watermelon. It doesn't really work. The base beer is lovely: clear gold, gently sparkling, with a fresh and cleansing saltiness. But then there's this awful layer of sickly artificial cough sweets plastered over the top. No surprises with the strength this time as it's a sensible 4.6% ABV. It's still a very poor effort, though: spoiled by the lazy addition of a flavouring it really did not need. Just a regular black and white zebra for me next, please.

Good American sour fruit beer seems hard come by. The big accessible  breweries don't seem to have quite got the hang of it yet.

20 December 2017

Bad sugar

Don't Gose Towards The Light! is possibly the most egregious example of that commonplace non-pun for gose names that I've encountered. It's used by To-Øl as the title of this one from their range, which they describe as a "black gose" though on pouring it's much more a purple colour than black, with a pink tint to the head. The colour is presumably a result of the inclusion of blackcurrants. I don't know if any actual dark malt has been used, but I suspect there's at least crystal because the first taste is sweeet. There's a shocking caramel and chocolate flavour, of the sort you might find in a thick brown ale, and which is definitely not gose-appropriate. The more customary light tartness sits next to it, sulking.

There's definitely a well-made gose at the base of this but it feels to me like it has been ruined by the inclusion of that thick sweetness. I'm surprised they were able to keep the ABV as low as 3.5%. The blackcurrant is detectable too, its own tartness almost drowned out by the beer's native sour flavour but the fruit element lingers on in the finish.

With a bit of roasted crispness, this recipe might have worked. I've no objection to black gose or fruited gose, or a combination, in principle or practice. But this is a disaster.

I'd barely recovered from the shakes when To-Øl's Nutcracker was put in front of me at UnderDog. This is an imperial stout with added hazelnuts; 11.9% ABV and incorporating a cornucopia of dark and smoked malts plus Simcoe hops. What that gave me, first of all, was perfume, which is not something one expects from an imperial stout. The aroma is incredibly flowery, the fabric softener borne upward on a sugary calorific draft.

Upon tasting it, the meadow takes a moment to reassert itself. The first flavour is the promised hazelnut, and there's coffee too, but set on a thick and sweetly cloying body, like a particularly boozy and unbalanced tiramisu. And then there's an attack of extra-cloying lavender bringing the flowers. Normally I enjoy that bit of purple in thick dark beers, but here the whole thing is just too sweet and busy to begin with. Even a small TeKu's worth is too much.

Remember when gose was sour and imperial stout was bitter? Happier times.

18 December 2017

All the double ladies

IPA may be dead, but Ingrid lives on. BrewDog has released a new set of hacked double IPAs, following on from 2010's cloudberry-laced Hello My Name is Ingrid and the many sequels it has spawned over the intervening years. This time there are nine of them in total, each representing a different nation, symbolised by the added ingredient. All are 8.2% ABV and the pale gold colour varies only slightly between them. The set arrived courtesy of the brewery and as far as I'm aware you can't normally buy them outside their thematic countries. That means in Ireland you're stuck with...

Hello My Name Is Niamh, the only one without a fruit addition, using elderflower instead. There's very little aroma, reminding me of weak lager more than anything. The texture is light and the flavour clean. I get the sweet elderflower in the foretaste and then a hard bitterness behind. Definitely a beer of two halves. Where the two sides meet I got an intense peppermint effect, like a mint humbug. This came with a hope that they're not all this weird.

To follow, the Norwegian entry Hello My Name Is Aune, which uses strawberry. The first point of difference is the colour: this definitely has a bit of a blush going. The bitterness is lower than in Niamh, and the texture softer. The strawberry taste is extremely subtle, to the point where I'm not sure if I'd recognise it as strawberry. There's a pink chewing gum vibe from it, flashing briefly in the foretaste before getting smothered by the harsh hop finish. This is the point where I starting thinking saison or Berliner weisse would have made a better jumping off point than double frickin' IPA.

Germany next and I had been particularly looking forward to Hello My Name Is Helga as I generally enjoy cherry in beer and cherry double IPA sounds intriguing. This is the first one with a proper aroma, a heady smack of cherry essence, like cough medicine or lip balm. The cherry roars from the middle of the flavour sending the hops scampering for cover. There's a stickiness that adds a cherry liqueur note, and I'd be tempted to chalk that one up to the malt base, but the other beers are quite dry and light-bodied, so I suspect it's simply whatever flavouring additive they've used. I can't say I actually liked this one, but I appreciate its tenacity.

I got a laugh out of Hello My Name is Lieke, brewed with orange and representing the Netherlands, as in "House of...", I assume. Anyway, it's darker than average and really does taste of zesty orange. It's slightly artificial, more Fanta than the real thing, but it stands up to the hops and is a real orange IPA, even if it's increasingly apparent that no actual fruit was involved in the production of any of these. Still, it's tasty and clean, and probably the best so far.

Deliberately I put this next to the Spanish entry Hello My Name Is Maria which claims mandarin. It just tastes like a scaled back version of Lieke. Tanora instead of Fanta, sweeter but lighter, and those naughty hops are visible behind it. It's the most chemical-tasting so far, nearer to the flavour lab than the produce aisle, and I got an unspecific flashback to brightly coloured hard-coated chew sweets.

Last of this citrus trilogy is Hello My Name Is Sofia shouting for Italy and flavoured with lemon. Barely, it turns out. There's a lemon meringue pie filling sweetness but that's as lemony as it gets. Strangely the hop bitterness isn't taking the opportunity to seize control of the flavour profile — because the citrus is in sync? — and the end result is quite an inoffensive easy-going light lemony pale ale. There's no way you'd believe it was 8.2% ABV. You might believe it's a dilute floor cleaner, though.

Round three: berries. I'm starting on Hello My Name Is Marianne, representing France with blackcurrant, or "cassis" as the label pretentiously insists. It needn't have bothered, there's very little fruit, and actully not much hop either. I found myself forcefully looking for Ribena in here, but there's not even that. Meh. Moving on...

Hello My Name Is Sari uses bilberry and is the Finnish one. There's a definite blueberry twang off this (they're related you know) but it's quick and brief with nothing to replace it. The hops are behaving again and when it all settles down the fruit wafts back in, but it's ghost flavour: nothing substantial. It's fine, even quite nice, but no particular element shines or really takes control. This was the only one where I wished they squirted more syrup in. It needs the Helga treatment.

Last one already? Sweden brings us home with Hello My Name Is Agnetha, this one with lingonberry. Jam again, though this time there's a hard metallic sharpness running through it: aspirin and woody berry seeds. This is one of the rare ones in the series that tastes much more of the fruit than anything else, though here the tartness actually combines well with the hops. Although it's quite sugary, there's enough green acidic bitterness on the finish to lend complexity, and perhaps even balance.

In conclusion? I dunno. I wasn't overly impressed by any of them, and that's at least in part due to the base beer being fairly unexciting and a little too bitter: a criticism I made of the IPA Is Dead series when that was the annual horizontal tasting event. Orange seems to be the fruit, or syrup, that's most worth your while if you want to re-engineer a double IPA like this, which isn't terribly surprising.

As it happened I ended up with two complimentary sets of the nine, and the second became an episode of the Irish Craft Beer Show. Look out for that in the New Year.