Sunday, 15 November 2015

#297: Sour Hour

The broad and undefined beer category of 'sour' is the style du jour and it's great to see it being embraced by Irish brewers and drinkers alike. As such, here are three very different Irish sour beers that happened to cross my path in recent weeks.

The first was White Hag's Beann Gulban, billed on the label as an Irish Heather Sour Ale. Using my more-or-less Belgian-specific sour beer frame of reference, I'd be forced to compare it to the likes of a Flanders red; it's a mostly clear, dark red, near headless apparition the bursts of sour fruit initially, before calming down with some time. Behind that initial palate slap there's an earthy, leathery backbone with even a tang of meaty smoke. There's a creamy turn in the texture right at the finish which softens the sour blow, meaning you get your palate scouring nice and drinkable and easier than the 7% ABV might have suggested. It's good, but I can't help but wish for a lighter, gristier sour...
...not unlike Kinnegar's Guezberry, a gooseberry kettle sour brewed in collaboration with Brian Short of the Brown Paper Bag Project (this nugget lifted directly from the label). It pours a hazy yellow and sports a pure white cap, looking approachable and innocent enough. Immediately it gives plenty of wheat and biscuit malt on the nose, with a calm, wet hay sort of farmyard character suggesting some funk to come later. Elswhere it has hidden textures of lemon and raw honey pulling you in. Things become more gueuzey right about now; sour wheat and citric acid on an underlying honeyish base, doing its best Pinot Grigio or New World Sauvignon Blanc impression, a freshness that's almost completely at odds with the much more earthy, funky nose. Still, it supplies the sour hit you crave and if nothing else is an eminently drinkable refresher that I would like to have met back in early Summer as opposed to mid Autumn. In retrospect, I note that the titular gooseberry doesn't seem to have a dramatic starring role in the piece.

Finally, the newest special release from Galway Bay, The Eternalist, billed rather vaguely on the label as a 'mixed fermentation beer with raspberries'. It sees some oak too, in the form of Cabernet Sauvignon barrels no less, so this is some really serious stuff.
In the glass, though, it is seriously butt-ugly. Murky isn't the half of it; the sort of disappointing, sickly, brownish, unusable hue a painter finds on the palette when he or she hasn't been paying too much attention while mixing is what we're presented with here. This is in total contrast to the aromatic property initially offered up, which is pure, fresh, clean raspberries. It's quite seductive and suggestive of something as refreshing and drinkable as the Belgian framboise that, despite absent from the label, is surely the style on which this beer is modelled. In this sense, I was actually kind of impressed by how 'authentic' it comes across; it's more farmyardy than I expected, with the raspberry fading fast in the effervescence to give the coarse, grainy, intensely dry malt bill free reign. The biggest effect though is the insanely high carbonation, scrubbing the palate like the lives of the Galway Bay folks depended on it. As time went on, I feel like I enjoyed it more, possibly owing to the growing expression of fruit on show and it made me wonder if I should have another to put away for a year or two. However, I can't help but think that if your first attempt at a clearly lambic/gueuze/framboise-inspired sour is priced the exact same as examples from Drie Fonteinen and Hanssens on those selfsame shelves, it would want to be a bit more assertive and definitively good than this, or just completely different.

Whatever the case, the three beers are more-than-welcome additions to the Irish beer scene, and represent the sort of ambition we should be lucky to see more of from our brewers. 
Fingers crossed that this is the death knell of the Stout, Red, Pale Ale portfolio of Irish brewers that, to be fair, already seems preposterously boring in 2015.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

#296: Octoberbust

The October bank holiday weekend beer festival in the Franciscan Well is arguably the least enticing of the three held there every year; the focus here is on imported beer over Irish stuff which, while offering plenty of good drinking, goes without the nerdy delight of meeting the brewers and the feeling that you're trying the latest and greatest that your scene has to offer. Instead, you're treated to esteemed guests from Belgium primarily (classics from Chimay and Westmalle were in attendance this year) alongside a host of internationals on one of the busiest weekends in Cork City.
Taras Boulba

I started in Belgium with Taras Boulba, a highly considered pale ale from Brasserie de la Senne, proponents (at least in part) of the delicious Manneken Penn. This, however, was not delicious. An aggressively grainy beer, it is harsh, husky coarseness and bitter in a twiggy, stalky kind of way. It is actually hard to drink, and I'm forced to abandon my half far too early. This is a bloody poor show from a brewer I expected more from, and not for the last time on the day I started to think about the kegs/lines instead of the beers themselves.

There was no such funniness with Tuatara's Aotearoa. This was disappointing in its own, very beery way. There are far more toffee shenanigans than I'd like but it doesn't offend or insult the palate. In fact, there's some lovely jaffa sweetness that acts as the sole highlight to the beer and while it's softer, rounder, sweeter and easier to drink than the previous one, it leaves the mouth a bit too sticky to be properly good. Still, I did manage to finish the half, so that's not too bad.

I was getting hungry by now, and with the ridiculously good Pompeii Pizza in the corner of the garden it was time to pick the most sinkable drink on the menu to accompany it. That drink was meant to Havik, a 'Euro pale lager' from De Struise. Things took a terrible turn right about here, and what follows is a direct transcript of the notes I made right then:

- jesus, how is it so bad?
- shocking
- pissy - I mean actually how I imagine urine to taste
            - slightly pungent and acrid, but ultimately hollow and sterile
- cidery?
            - sulphur and cider
- the worst €4 I've ever spent on beer
- poxy. I'm angry now, fuck this shit beer or shit cellarmanship.
- it smells like a dirty beach.

I left it there. It's harsh, I know, but the beer was truly terrible. The staff were great and changed my beer without hesitation, but without being able to figure out what was wrong, the beer stayed on. Just as well, too; another punter came and ordered a pint of the stuff shortly after my experience and, the bar staff on the ball, they made sure he tasted it before confirming the order. He tasted it, liked it, and bought it. The whole €8 pint of it. I feel it's only fair I make this known as I'm being so critical of this awful, horrible mess of a beer - perhaps it really was just me.
One of the more attractive beers on the list was the other De Struise guest, the XXX rye tripel which, arriving as I did on the Sunday afternoon, I missed. Thankfully, I'd had that (or the reserva version?) from the bottle here.
Lupulus Hibernatus

The beer I received to compensate for this was ample compensation indeed; Lupulus Hibernatus is a strong dark affair from Les 3 Fourquets, another Belgian guest, and pours a headless brown with plenty of brown sugar and molasses on the nose. To taste it's a hefty, chocolatey dessert beer that bears more than a passing resemblance to the glorious Aventinus. At 9% it's a sipper, but the sips come too quick and too easy, especially for a shameless sugarfiend like myself.

Rodenbach Grand Cru
I was finally on a high, and to keep it going I had to go for one of the VIPs on the menu, Rodenbach Grand Cru. I hated this the first time I had it, back when it was the very first sour beer I'd experienced. In hindsight, such a beer is probably the worst initiation for a devoted vinegarphobe (all vinegar must die, now and forever) - at the time, it felt at the time like I was drinking a glass of balsamic. Nowadays, I have a sour itch that needs scratching, and this does it. Again it's headless and almost devoid of aromatic punch at the cold draught serving temperature, but it delivers a ridiculously good, palate re-adjusting sour hit that screams of cherries and raspberries and, weirdly for a measly 6%, a perfume headiness. Still, it's a full-bodied, bang-for-buck beer with enough finesse to stand up to scrutiny while remaining quite easy to drink. I'll be buying more.

I was given a taste of Unknown Shore at this point, a Lithuanian oaked dubbel from Brick by Brick which, a quick Google will tell you, is in fact Švyturys. In any case, it's pretty tasty; oak intensified malt a seriously chewy, woody, raisiny thing unlike any dubbel I've had before. It probably won't stand in the pantheon of classics of the style, but it makes for interesting drinking indeed.

It was back to Belgium thereafter and to Vicaris Tripel-Gueuze from Dilewyns. It's, well, kind of like it sounds: coppery, citrusy bitterness, honey sweetness and a measure of sourness. It's weird and, I suppose, objectively interesting, but ultimately not as much fun as the name suggests. 

To finish the festival and complete the geographical set I went for Karpat's Eagle, an 8% IPA from Ukraine. It's a sweet tropical fruit and bubblegum concoction that doesn't play too nicely as a proper IPA but doesn't do much harm either. 

On that note, I left perhaps the most dramatic and emotional beer festival experience I've had and tried to move on with my life.