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.