Saturday 21 April 2018

Tis the season for Irish Saison

It's Irish Saison beer night tonight, for no obvious reason except that I was gifted a couple of bottles at the Irish embassy's craft drinks night last month. First up is Grunt, a 4.8% Saison from Dublin-based Hope Beer, a name that's new to me, although it turns out they're almost three years old.

It pours with an aroma that puzzled me for a moment, then I realised: gin! A check of the label, and yes, this is that relatively rare thing, a spiced Saison. Most brewers let the yeast and hops add the spicy notes, but this one has added juniper, lemongrass and bergamot. The result is initially disconcerting – the spices overpower the Saison flavours, with a dry-edged bitterness that doesn't invite one to quaff.

Read the label some more though, and it becomes obvious that this is a beer for drinking with food, not merely for drinking! Hope suggests pairing with seafood or cheese, and sure enough, a slice of the latter lifts and brightens the flavour of the beer considerably, smoothing the harsh edge in the process. I was impressed – generally one tries to find a pairing where good beer and good food complement each other; rarely does one find a beer that really shines when drunk with food!

The second comes from a brewery I already knew, Boyne Brewhouse of County Meath, but when I last spoke with export director Peter Cooney, I think they were still contract-brewing while they built their own brewery. Two years on, it was great to see how the beers have improved – they were decent then but a little pedestrian, now they are solid, with an expanded range that includes some brilliant beers.

It helps that it's part of a larger group that also makes whiskey and cider – for example, I tasted Peter's prize-winning barrel-aged Imperial Stout, which spends four to six months in casks that once held sherry, but more recently held his Boann whiskey for 30 months. It was gorgeous, but more intriguing still was the fact that he's now cycling the casks back again, so after the beer they are refilled with spirit to make Stout-barrel-aged whiskey, then he'll refill with beer, and so on. "I'm not sure how many times I can do it though," he laughs. 

Anyway, Boyne's Irish Craft Saison doesn't disappoint. It has the classic Belgian estery and slightly funky nose. There's lemony golden malt, firm peppery and pithy bitterness, a touch of peaches and cream, and at 5.5% a light chewiness to it. A little too gassy for my taste, but otherwise a very well-executed example.

Friday 20 April 2018

Where's Waldo? Down the pub

It's 4.20pm on April 20th – 4/20 in American parlance – and Lagunitas Brewery market manager Finny is in London for the 2018 launch of Waldo's Special Ale, one of the brewery's annual one-offs. "Happy 4:20!" he announces merrily, before taking a mouthful of the beer and launching into its origin story.

Finny – real name Andrew Finsness, but known to all by his nickname – clearly loves telling a story. This one is the 1971 tale of five high school students, who called themselves the Waldos because their favoured hang-out was by the school wall. They had acquired a 'treasure map' which would allegedly lead them to an abandoned marijuana plantation, and they agreed to meet at 4.20pm each day after school to go and look for it.

The way the story goes, they never found it, but somehow "4:20" entered the counter-culture as a term for smoking a joint. Then 40 years later, the founders of Lagunitas – who knew the term well – made a connection. Hops and marijuana are closely related plants, so with richly herbaceous and hop-forward ('dank') beers in vogue, they got in touch with the Waldos and invited them to come and help brew a beer that would both celebrate the 420 legend and that herbal sub-culture.

Finny spins a tale
The result is a triple IPA – triple in this sense means above about 10% alcohol, says Finny – that is brewed just once a year. That might not sound much, but the brew length at Lagunitas is 250 US barrels, which is a shade under 30,000 litres, and most of its fermenters take three brews, so a single batch is almost 90,000 litres or a quarter of a million bottles.

The beer varies a little from year to year in terms of alcohol strength (it's 11.3% this year) and the exact mix of hops, but regardless of that, it is the hoppiest and dankest beer that the brewery produces. And what a brew it is – rich and flavoursome, very bitter, yet well balanced because of its smooth and dank texture.  

It's also the first time that it had officially crossed the Atlantic, with April 20th launch events in several European cities. This, as Finny and his colleagues acknowledge, is one of the welcome results of Heineken's 2017 takeover of Lagunitas – it's now the craft flagship of the Heineken empire family, and has the Dutch giant's marketing and distribution muscle behind it.

Indeed, apart from a growing confidence and ambition, it is hard to tell that much has changed at Lagunitas since the acquisition – the playful, charitable and iconoclastic family feel is still in evidence. One has to hope that this will last.

Wednesday 11 April 2018

West Cork's new meadery offers a modern take on an ancient tradition

If your idea of Irish mead is that rich and smooth, but tooth-crackingly sweet Bunratty stuff, you could be in for not one but two pleasant surprises. The first, Kinsale Atlantic Dry, is a light, crisp and flavoursome honey-wine – dry, yet still a little soft on the palate.

The second, Wild Red Mead, is a gorgeous red Melomel (fruited mead) which while still distinctly honey-toned, also carries the berry notes of rich red wines. When we met at last month's Irish drinks event at the London embassy, its creator Denis Dempsey (left) explained that where the Dry is fermented with 300kg of honey per batch, the Red replaces just 40kg of the honey with an astonishing 400kg of Irish blackcurrants and cherries – hence those lovely fruity Cabernet notes.

"Even sweet blackcurrants are only 14% sugar," he said, as we compared notes on mead-making. With my own redcurrant Melomel, I found that the dryness from swapping half a pound of honey for a pound of fruit (so 2:1 rather than 10:1, on my far smaller batches) accentuated the tangy currant flavours, but he's aiming for a richer, rounder result – and he hits that target most excellently.

Although his meads are made in Kinsale in West Cork – "an amazing foodie place," as Denis put it – and the fruit is Irish, the honey is Spanish because Ireland simply doesn't produce enough to be cost-effective. The mead retails at €22 (around £20) a bottle as it is.

The amazing thing, given how very good the meads are, is that he and his wife Kate only set up Kinsale Mead Co last year. Denis said their research included visiting a number of meaderies in the US – there are dozens of them there, making a huge variety of drinks. They also did test brews and tried different yeasts (they mostly use a white wine yeast now) before launching in Ireland last September.

We talked a little more about mead-making techniques, before Denis added a piece of advice for mead consumption: "It works well in cocktails, too," he said. Now there's an intriguing thought!

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Moor Beer opens up on the Bermondsey Beer Mile

Moor Beer's new Vaults and Taproom in London's Bermondsey is now officially open – it's actually been open for several weeks, but perhaps that was unofficial opening! Anyway, Friday last week saw various writers and other people from the beer business come to meet brewer Justin Hawke, sample his beers, take a look around his new venture, and if they chose, stay on for Arrogant Sour London, a festival of yes, sour beers from Italy that Justin was hosting that evening.

Located in the inevitable railway arch, the Moor Taproom is just a few doors (or arches) up from Brew by Numbers and The Kernel, and is on the other side of the viaduct from Anspach & Hobday, UBrew and BottleShop – yes, it's the latest addition to the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Indeed, one of the first people I saw on arriving was Kernel owner Evin O'Riordain, chatting with Draft House head of beer Alex Stevenson while making a neighbourly visit.

Justin (centre) opens Arrogant Sour London
As the name implies, this isn't going to house a brewery – that's staying put in Bristol, where Moor's original taproom is. But as well as a bar, it is also Moor's distribution hub for the London area and its new barrel-store – Justin explained that they've totally run out of space in Bristol, so it makes sense to move his barrel-ageing work to London, even at four times the rent.

Moor is committed to both cask and keg beers, and both feature on the bar here – six casks on a gravity stillage visible behind the bar, plus a dozen keg taps. On our visit the cask ales ranged from 3.8% Revival pale ale, to the stunningly good 7.3% Luke Sloewalker, which is Moor's Old Freddy Walker* strong ale, aged on Justin's hand-picked local sloes. The kegs featured several more Star Wars-inspired names, including Return of the Empire IPA, Dark Alliance stout, and a wonderful 8% Double New England IPA called Rey of Light.

It all backs up what I discovered a few weeks ago – that the Bermondsey beer scene is undergoing growth and a welcome revival. Hopefully, this time it won't get swamped by stag parties and inadequate toilet facilities!

*This multi-award-winning ale and the slogan "Drink Moor Beer" are all that's left of the brewery's former incarnation on a farm in North Somerset. 

The art of whiskey is more in ageing and blending than distilling

Whiskey blender Louise McGuane at work
I'd not heard the term 'whiskey bonding' until last week, at the third of the Irish Embassy's annual presentations of 'craft drinks' from Ireland, when I tasted a new whiskey called JJ Corry The Gael, from a producer called Chapel Gate.

When I met new-wave Irish craft whiskey producers before – yes, there's 'craft' everything these days – I discovered that while some were building distilleries, they were also buying ready-distilled spirit in from elsewhere and ageing and blending it for sale.

For many – including two excellent examples I'd tasted earlier that evening, namely Boann Distillery's bourbon and sherry-aged The Whistler, and Writer's Tears from Walsh Whiskey – this is so they can get their brand to market and have some money coming in while they get their distillery up and running.

Their problem is that you can't legally sell your own whiskey until it's three years old, so you need something to sell in the meantime. (This is also one reason for the upsurge in craft vodka and gin, by the way, as they are things you can sell un-aged.)

Chapel Gate currently has no plans to distill its own spirit, however. Instead, founder Louise McGuane talks of reviving whiskey bonding, which she describes as a 19th century tradition where wholesalers and even pubs would buy in whiskey and age it 'in bond', which is to say without tax paid. Like them, she buys in various old barrels and the spirit to fill them with, or even ready-filled barrels.

Once the whiskey is aged – and the main flavours of whiskey all come from the barrels – she combines the many different flavours to create her preferred blend. The result is lighter in colour than the others I tried, lightly fragrant, fruity and smoky, and perhaps a little drier too.

As soon as I heard the story (there's a fuller version here), I recognised it: it is also the story of Scotch blending, and it is how well-known names such as Chivas Regal and Famous Grouse originated. The big difference is that in those cases the same company now owns both the blend(er) and the contributing distilleries.