In Kingstown for a taste of Old Empire

I was out at a conference in Dún Laoghaire recently to hear about initiatives to revitalise town centres. There are clearly a lot of ideas floating about in how they can be improved. Over the past few years it was easy to see the effects the recession, the opening of the Dundrum Town Centre, aggressive clampers and other issues has had on Dún Laoghaire itself.

The conference due attention to the role independent retailers, restauranteurs and publicans can play in urban regeneration. However, it was also stressed that it was important to get the balance right in terms of attracting the chains etc. The town has seen Starbucks take root alongside prominent retailers as well. One of the latest and certainly high profile openings was JD Wetherspoons second Irish venture, The Forty Foot. Sharing the site and name of the previous incarnation, the pub is a departure from the sort of “village feel” Wetherspoons and fits in with the more modernist and light-filled of the large “corporate” Wetherspoons.

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Spread over two floors, the 40 Foot has fantastic views over the harbour and across Dublin Bay. By all accounts it has a younger clientele to Blackrock’s The Tun Tavern, particularly at weekends. I only had time for a quick pint and of course opted for cask ale. Although it’s great to see Brú Brewery joining Eight Degrees in their Irish craft beer bottle range.

With the town formally being called Kingstown, I had the excuse to opt for Marston’s Old Empire, a 5.7% abv IPA. Martson’s is one of those breweries that lost a significant amount of charm over recent years. Yes, it’s still independent but it has grown through acquisitions. The Midland’s based company comprises the likes of Bank’s, Eversheds, Wychwood and has just acquired the brewing arm of Thwaites, including the Crafty Dan range. The brewery has embarked on a successful partnership with English cricket (more on that at another time). While Marston’s is firmly in the company of big independent brewers, it could suffer reputational damage along the lines of Green King.

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So out on the deck of the top floor of The Forty Foot, I tried Old Empire. The beer was a clear and bright copper colour. It was bronze almost and would leave those hooked on spray tans, satisfied. There was fresh orange and grapefruit on the nose but there was also a hint of toffee. On drinking, it was clear that this beer there was about chewy bitterness, little else. There was only the slightest sweetness on the back of the palate. It was slightly astringent in the finish. The toasted malt bill had too much burnt notes for my liking.

It’s interesting to note that the two outside areas of the bar are non smoking. Those wanting to smoke will find themselves confined to an area a safe distance from the main entrance. I will be back to the 40 Foot the next time I’m in Dún Laoghaire but I will opt for something else on cask.

Get the rocket ship from Cork

Over recent months, I’ve had to travel to Cork for meetings. Unfortunately on each occasion, time didn’t allow me to catch up with the ever expanding beer scene in the city. Cork firmly holds the title of Ireland’s capital of craft beer (although not all breweries are located within the city boundary). What’s worse was that my last two trips were immediately following the Franciscan Well beer festivals.

The train service is fantastic these days. Gone are the long slogs up and down of old. So with that in mind, there’s a beer to sum up my trips over the past few months and that is Rocket Ship. This is a relatively new offering in bottles (it was first debuted at last summer’s Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival) and it was a beer that finished off Easter for me.

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Rocket Ship is a double IPA (6.5% abv) brewed by Black’s of Kinsale. It pours a vibrant polished copper with a thick head. Lots of fresh fruit on the nose, including pineapple, passion fruit and a dose of grapefruit. The aroma was a melange of fruit a bit like the hit one would get in patisserie between fruit pastries, pavlovas and other fancy fruit tarts. There’s a hint of sweetness on the nose but that’s where it ends. The beer drinks dry, bitter and a there’s a tad spiciness to the taste, as if it was made with a pinch of rye. Grapefruit notes dominate. There are hints of slightly dried fruit but not sticky or sweet. There’s a good bit of bitterness in the finish but what would you expect from the style?

The brewery has certainly made an impact on the Irish beer scene and it hasn’t quite yet celebrated its second anniversary. I have seen first hand at beer tastings, people who weren’t keen on hop-forward beers certainly changing their views based on the Kinsale Pale Ale (KPA) and this has continued with the Black IPA. I do think people have underestimated the contribution KPA has made in terms of winning over new fans in a manner similar to Sierra Nevada’s iconic pale ale did for many a beer enthusiast.

It’s hard not to like Sam and Maudeline Black and their determination to live the dream attracted a fair bit of support through a crowd funding campaign. They’ve just launched another campaign to fund the brewery’s expansion. Hopefully this will see another double IPA, High Viz being released. It tasted fantastic at the recent Alltech Brews and Food fair. Also, cans of KPA can be expected to become a hot seller over the the coming months. With the weather improving (well this week at least), I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with the brewery’s Session Pale Ale.

A project to catch drinkers on the hop

Guinness is at it again. Following up on last September’s kickoff, hitting Irish outlets in October, a new beer has been released as part of the Brewers Project. The new beer’s a departure from the porter and stout category. They’ve even leaped outside completely.

Hop House 13 is a lager. I have heard plenty of chatter on how the brewer doesn’t like such beers but persevered for the sake of making a decent but different take on the style. At 4.1%, the folk in St. James’ Gate are attempting to compete in the lager category against old and new offerings by other macro breweries and even those they brew under licence. It’s certainly priced that way. If it eats into craft beer sales (if being sold in the same pub), I’m sure they’ll take that too.

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To cover all bases, not only is this aimed at the lager drinker it also is trying to cash in on the “cool” drinker. The one who may want to appear fashionable because he or she has heard of something called “hop”. To make it even easier and perhaps a more attractive proposition Guinness has gone and put it smack bang into the name of the beer. This is the “Fr Trendy” of beers.

Hop House 13 pours a clear golden colour. So a big tick for that. Little perceptible hop aroma. There’s citrus and apricot in tasting so I’m told. I got the subtle citrus flavours but it had more of a red berry than apricot taste for me. However, I tried this after judging a beer competition and my palate was fairly shot.

I have tried this beer on two separate occasions. It could prove popular as the weather gets better. Already countless “sure there’s a grand stretch in the evening” comments can be heard. It could pass muster for fans of summer ale as there’s a teaspoon of bitterness in the beer. It’s a little thin and watery but overall not a bad attempt.

The “crafty” Brewers Project appears to be picking up momentum. Hop House 13 will be featuring in bars across the island but not in all of them. It’ll be a similar rollout to Dublin Porter. The Brewers Project is clearly becoming a brand, label (or call it what you will) in its own right.

I’m just waiting for the day when I might overhear a drinker remark that “13” refers to the types of hops in the beer. For the record, there’s only three: mosaic, topaz and galaxy.

You could have worse beers than this but you could certainly have better. This is where it fits in. Could be better, could be worse.

Beers from Atlanta in honour of the city’s famous son

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the U.S. Whilst it takes place on the 3rd Monday of January, Dr. King’s actual birthday is 15 January but for the purposes of this post, I thought it prudent to feature two beers from a brewery in the city of his birth.

Atlanta’s Sweetwater Brewery was founded back in 1997 by Freddy Bensch and Kevin McNerny, roommates at University of Colorado in Boulder (obviously a place to discover craft beer). Firmly embracing the importance of “localism”, the brewery takes its name from Sweetwater Creek, which flows off from the brilliantly named – and easier to say after a couple of beers – Chattahoochee River (any Alan Jackson fans out there?). The brewery’s motto is “don’t float the mainstream”, and it features prominently on all the packaging for its brews.

Sweetwater was one of the craft brewing outliers in the South. When I first started going to Nashville almost ten years ago now, their beers were one of the few regional beers regularly available, with their 420 Extra Pale Ale becoming an early favourite of mine. At 5.7%, it had enough fresh hop bitterness to be pleasant on those hot southern summer days.

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The most recent beers I had from the brewery were Georgia Brown and LowRYEder IPA. Billed an “easy drinkin’ back porch ale”, Georgia Brown is “as smooth as a Bill Clinton apology”. According to the bottle, I was to “enjoy it some southern hospitality” so it was a bottle I cracked open during a trip to visit the in-laws. There’s chocolate and demerara sugar (or as they call it down there, sugar in the raw) on the nose. It’s colour can be best described as a fine amber syrup. It’s got what you’d expect from a brown ale – low bitterness (30 IBUs and is hopped with Columbus & Willamette) and some bready characteristics. There are also bold coffee notes on the finish, though, to keep you guessing.

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Next up is LowRYEder IPA, described as “a flame trowin’ IPA ignited by a 25% shot of rye malt and capped by a booty hoppin’ blast of Mt Hood and Centennial hops that make this IPA bounce”. Rye’s a common ingredient in beers across the South. It can be sourced easier than hops and can help give that desired spiciness. The beer pours orange with amber highlights topped by vibrant head of foam. The beer’s hopped with Columbus, Mt Hood and Centennial. Whilst there was initial fresh citrus notes on the noses, the rye bill (plenty of brewers find 10% rye creates the desired spicy backbone) resulted in an aroma of dried fruit. This beer’s balanced, though, and the dry, bitter finish is not over-powering. It belies its 6.2% abv and cries out for a good burger to have alongside it.

Jack Cody’s Puck Pilsner, my choice of a beer for 2015

Back in November Breandán Kearney asked me to suggest an Irish beer that I think “people should try in 2015 (something new or old)”. He was putting together a post for his excellent website www.belgiansmaak.com on 30 Fantastic Irish Beers You Have To Try in 2015 (As Suggested by Ireland’s Beer Geeks and Experts), which he published earlier this week.

Check out Breandán and Elisa's excellent site on adventures in beer & chocolate (www.belgiansmaak.com)
Check out Breandán and Elisa’s excellent site on adventures in beer & chocolate (www.belgiansmaak.com)

The only stipulation was “that the beer be Irish”. This was no easy task as it’s a bit like choosing your favourite film etc. It got me thinking about whether to suggest a completely new beer to look out for in 2015 without having tried it. Also, I was up against 29 others in the race to get dibs on the beer choice as Breandán was operating on a first-come, first-served basis.

The beer I chose was Puck Pilsner from Jack Cody’s in Drogheda for reasons outlined below. There have been a few really good lagers produced in Ireland in recent years. Bo Bristle has an excellent pilsner and Eight Degrees Barefoot Bohemian goes down well in tastings. Of course there’ve been bad examples as well, sometimes from the same brewery. Does the Porterhouse really need to persist with Chiller? Surely it could free up a tap and confidently push one year-round lager in the form of Hersbrucker (okay I know Temple Braü is a big seller for them).

No doubt 2015 will see a range of new beers to try. No doubt many won’t just have a name but also many will not have even been dreamt up by the brewers themselves. I’ll be looking out for some of the new ones around festival time (and there’ll be a fair few of them over the year). Hopefully some of the beers from the Irish Craft Beer and Cider festival will be released during the year, particularly for me anyway some of the saisons.

Can't wait to try the beers coming from their new Dublin brewery
Can’t wait to try the beers coming from their new Dublin brewery

It won’t be just a case of new beer but also new breweries, with Killarney’s Torc Brewing becoming the first born of 2015. Look out for the brewery’s Wheat (Belgian Wit) and Amber ales. Other beers I’m looking to try in 2015 will be coming from Niall and Kev in Stone Barrel. They’ll be brewing their beers on their own kit (well a communal one) in Dublin that was the old Galway Hooker kit and Emerald before them. They’d been contract brewing before that and split production between Ireland and England. I can’t wait to see what the lads will come up with when using their own kit.

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So my rationale for Jack Cody’s Puck Pilsner (4.5% ABV) as a beer to look out for in 2015 is a follows and is as appears on Breandán’s site:

With the growth in craft beer set to continue, a lot of attention is placed on the more unusual, stronger or hop-forward beers (or even a combination of all three). We can all too easily lose sight or even under-appreciate the beers that win over new fans to craft beer, perhaps even more so when it comes to lagers.

Jack Cody’s Puck Pilsner can please ardent macro-lager drinkers but is complex enough for real beer fans. It pours a clean straw-like in colour, with earthy and subtle honey notes on the nose. The earthy notes continue on tasting before yielding to a cracker-dry, bitter finish. It’s not overly carbonated (enough to clean the palate) and at 4.5% ABV it comfortably fits into the session beer realm. Puck Pilsner along with Bo Bristle’s Pilsner are two excellent versions to look out for in 2015 but are also perfect to introduce craft beer newbies to.