Three from Eight

First post of 2015 and it’s about three beers released in time for Christmas (there I said it and it’s after the 6th of January). Well the beers in question were brewed by Eight Degrees and make up its Very Imperial Winter 2014/15 collection. Craft beer and the seasonality is becoming bigger in Ireland. It’s as if we eagerly await the launch of spring/summer collections.

Eight Degrees followed up 2013’s Back to Black series with three different brews to “tempt and warm you over the cooler season”. There’s Double Irish, a double IPA (so not just a clever name at 9.0% abv, Belgian Dubbel at 7.2% abv and finally the survivor from the previous year, Russian Imperial Stout at 9% abv.

I had tried these beers after their release in the fourth week of November but things were so manic since then, I’m only getting time to post about them now. I had even used the dubbel in a tasting the day after they appeared in the shops for the first time to a group who’d been lucky enough to sample it in Mitchelstown before its release. A dubbel is a great food beer and it’s perfect for roast dinners so it was good to be able to use and Irish version for a tasting.

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The Belgian Dubbel pours with colour similarities to Rodenbach. It has a distinctly bright reddish-brown appearance and certainly more vibrant than more characteristic dubbels out there. It’s also extremely clear and given the right glass, it could pass for a brandy (the head dissipates quickly). There’s banana and dark fruits, mainly plums on the nose. On tasting, there’s some initial carbonation but quickly disappears. In terms of flavour profile, there’s a hit of plums and a dash of spice up front before being taken over by sweet notes that continue into the finish.

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Earlier this year, Eight Degrees released Full Irish, a single malt IPA at 6% abv. It was packed full of big citrus flavours with a malt bill that wasn’t going to get in the way. Double Irish is this beer’s big brother. It pours a rich bronze colour with a hazy amber hue. The aroma is a total immersion in tropical sweet fruits. There’s a tangy freshness of orange and pineapple. Sticky fruit on taste, with some caramel before yielding to a pure and chewy dry finish. At 9% abv, there’s a warming bitterness on the finish that’s similar to a strepsil in its warming sensation on the throat.

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The final beer is the Russian Imperial Stout. The previous year’s version featured as my choice for the desert beer for my 2013 Christmas Dinner Menu. It pours jet black, with a thick creamy caramel head (perhaps reminiscent of a coke float). It has plenty of vanilla and chocolate notes on the nose. On first taste, you can pick out sweet vanilla, bourbon and espresso characteristics. While it continually hints at its alcohol strength, the beer takes on a bitter, dark roasted espresso finish.

While these beers may not be standard-bearers for a given style in their own right, they achieve what Scott and Cam set out to do, namely to be winter sippers. What’s even more remarkable is that they all come in around the €3 euro mark. The brewery has had remarkable success over the past five years but they have consistently been able to maintain the prices at the lower end.

Big things can be expected to come from them in 2015 as they expand production. A second-hand kit, with funding secured via Linked Finance, is on its way from Mauritius. Hopefully we’ll see some of the seasonal and once-off beers released in 2014 becoming regularly available. The brewery even featured this week on the first broadcast of UTV Ireland’s Ireland Live at 10 programme.

A beer for that slice of pie

Americans love their pies. From homemade apple pie to pumpkin pie, there’s hardly a diner scene in a movie where someone’s not seen devouring a slice of pie. It’s even more prevalent with special occasions such as Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Pumpkin pie has been the inspiration for many an autumnal brew. This year’s first release was all the way back in June and was followed up by countless others. Pumpkin beer is not just for Halloween and takes in Thanksgiving and the remainders are supped over Christmas along with pie for desert.

For Christmas this year, desert featured chocolate pecan pie. Pecans are a southern US tradition and in Ireland they only tend to pop up in Cuisine de France pastries. Thus year gave me the opportunity to try some pie with a beer made with whole roasted pecans.

Lazy Magnolia's Southern Pecan & a slice of pie
Lazy Magnolia’s Southern Pecan & a slice of pie

Lazy Magnolia is Mississippi’s oldest brewery (well post-prohibition speaking) founded all the way back in 2003. They produce a nut brown ale called Southern Pecan, which has a few awards to its name.

The beer (4.4% abv) pours burnished copper with a slight head that forms a band around the rim of the glass. It’s a malt forward beer (19 IBUs) and its aroma picks up roast vegetable notes with a liberal sprinkling of brown sugar. In keeping with its name, there’s a big hit of pecan on initial tasting with sweet nuttiness on the finish.

While the beer’s fairly light in body, it comes into its own with a good ol’ slice of pie.

Bland, not just blonde

Diageo have launched yet another new beer under Smithwicks brand. It’s a blonde and brings the number of draught Smithwick’s products to three. This is yet another salvo in macro-wars and follows on from the recent launch of the two beers under Guinness’ “Brewers Project” initiative.

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The Smithwick’s name has a love/hate relationship with pub goers. A fair bit of the criticism may be unjust and there’s a fair bit of urban myths floating about about it. It shows the brand awareness for better or worse. So it’s interesting to see the company sticking with adding new brews to the lineup and not create a series of “crafty” mini-brands. Although people seem to be attracted by the “Pale Ale” and not the brand name so will it be a similar story with the Blonde?

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It’s not a seasonal offering like the wine-gum packed Winter Spirit, which is back for a second year. Although there may be similarities with last summer’s release, Long Summer. This style of beer can blur the boundaries between lager and ale. Smithwick’s Blonde clearly has the likes of Clonmel 1650 in its crosshairs and is clearly hoped that it can replicate the success of Smithwicks Pale Ale in seeing seen off its challenger(s) like Caledonian Smooth.

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So what’s it like? It pours extremely clear and is honey gold. It’s slightly deceptive as the beer looks more carbonated than it actually is. and is deceptive. There’s a slight floral aroma (although I have to admit that I tried this in a smoking area). It drinks smooth with a touch of hop bitterness. It’s bland and inoffensive, what else would we expect.

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Who is the target market for this beer? Look past the craft beer enthusiast who’ll most likely go as far trying it to tick it off the list. It’s new and different so it might appeal to a few pub goers to give it a go. Hopefully they’ll go on to explore other beers.

Coincidentally, Guinness have introduced a new lager for the US market. This follows on from the disappointing Black Lager. It’s called Guinness Blonde but contains American hops, namely wiliamette and mosaic. It’s contract brewed by the City Brewing Company. Apparently more releases can be expected under what the Guinness people have called the “Discovery Series”.

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Lovin’ Loverbeer in Dublin

Back in the middle of November, a unique beer festival took place in the Italian Quarter. Organised by Wallace Wine Bars, Quartiere In Fermento was a small festival celebrating the artisanal beer scene in Italy.

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Unfortunately I had to be on my best behaviour and limit myself to only four glasses of beer as I had a charity event to go to that evening. So given this constraint, what else could I try but Loverbeer.

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The piedmont brewery specialises in sour beers, with about a dozen in its range. The Piedmont brewery’s located about 40 minutes outside of Turin and unlike the neighbouring vineyards, it welcomes spontaneous fermentation with open arms. The brewery was set up by Valter Loverier (hence the “Loverbeer” name) in 2010. Valter was on hand at the festival to introduce his exceptional beers.

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The suggested order for tasting the four beers he brought was to commence with Dama Brun-a, which is extremely tart and tannin-laden barrel-aged brew. An Oud Bruin in style, it had pleasant similarities with Rodenbach. Next up was plummy Beer Brugna that while sour, it had a dark fruit subtle sweetness. Then it was on to BeerBera, a wild brew that is fermented with Barbera, the iconic grape of the region. This grape is used to create big, powerful Piedmont reds and it doesn’t disappoint in this beer. Finally, with taste buds already beginning to wane due to indulging on glasses of the sours, it was time to up the ante for my last beer from the brewery and indeed my last one at the festival. The time had come to taste Papessa, a 7% abv sour Russian Imperial Stout. This was the perfect beer to finish on as the dark chocolate-laden beer complimented the fruits in the previous three that had taken up residence on my palate.

It was great to try these beers in the company of Valter and here his take on each one. These beers and all those at the festival will be making appearances in the Italian Quarter restaurants (either in bottles or on draught). Look out for them!

Hey porter, hey porter

October sees the two new Guinness products being sold in Ireland. Officially launched at the beginning of September, the Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter have been available to purchase in the UK for an entire month. I was invited along with a handful of other bloggers to take a peek inside Guinness’ Pilot Brewery and be one of the first people to try the two new offerings but have waited until now to post about them. The reason being not only did bottles hit the shelves this week but so too did the draught version of the Dublin Porter in selected pubs.

The preview evening was hosted by Nick Curtis-Davis the Head of Innovation for Guinness, along with ‎Pilot Plant Manager Luis Ortega and Master Brewer Gearóid Cahill. Marketed under the Brewers Project, the beers mark a new departure for the company because they’ve adopted the “freedom to fail” approach to innovation. They took a conscious decision that no market research be taken prior to releasing these beers. There’s apparently no plan or future roadmap for the series.

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Critics were early to accuse them of copying the likes Shepherd’s Neame in releasing historic recreations. However, the Brewers Project is not a case of “beer archaeology” because of the extremely limited appeal this would have. The beers are “influenced” by historic recipes, not historic recreations. Take for instance West Indies Porter, it is inspired by brewery logs of 1801 for the first purpose-brewed export porter, using twice the amount of hops, by Guinness. The original recipe itself has evolved over time into Foreign Extra Stout. The 1796 reference on the Dublin Porter relates to the fact that year was the earliest record of porter being written down in the company diaries.

When Guinness lends its brand to new products people are quick to remember high profile failures. Breó anyone? Guinness drinkers have proven to be remarkably brand resilient over the years even treating the likes of Foreign Extra Stout with suspicion. So why re-attempt this now? The explanation lies in the explosion of craft beer and the role it has played in educating the consumer and reviving the interest in beer. It doesn’t pretend to be craft. These products aren’t aimed at the beer enthusiasts (they’ll try it once and tick it off the list) but rather an acknowledgement to the fact that some drinkers are now more likely to stray into the unknown and try something new. This benefits the overall beer market as it helps grow potential consumers for craft products. Part of the battle is always trying to get people to try new things.

So what are they like? First, up was the Dublin Porter (3.8% abv) that pours a dark mahogany colour. There’s roast coffee notes on the nose. It drinks dry with a little chewiness. For me it felt as if it was a tad over-carbonated. There’s a wee kick of bitterness in the finish.

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This week I got to try the draught version of the Dublin Porter. It was interesting that they opted to serve this via CO2 and not with the assistance of nitrogen. This clearly differentiates it from draught Guinness and lacks the smoothness people have come to expect. This is no bad thing and helps to pick up on the various flavours and textures within the beer. I got more chocolate than coffee on the nose and on tasting but giving way to a dry nuttiness on the finish. The head dissipates fairly quickly and the beer itself comes across a fairly light in body. I would love to think that drinkers after becoming familiar with this on draught would reach for the excellent Dark Arts Porter by Trouble Brewing as time goes on.

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Finally, the West Indies Porter at 6% abv is available in bottles only. It’s a beer that people will draw immediate comparisons with Foreign Extra Stout. Perhaps this is a little unfair. The beer pours dark brown and its aroma is reminiscent of a milky coffee that subdues notes of roasted coffee. There’s a slight chocolate hit on first taste. It’s initially creamy with vanilla sweetness but succumbs to a chewy bitterness on the finish.

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For me, these beers aren’t remarkable in the way Guinness Special Export is. They’re grand and were interesting to try in a been-there, done-that sort of way but that’s not the point. These beers are not aimed at drinkers like me and nor should they be. Their importance can be in helping convince people loyal to a brand to try one or two variants. Hopefully, some of them will go on to discover the exciting beers available out there in a way that O’Shea’s Traditional Irish Stout (aka Carlow Brewing Company) in Aldi has done. Only time will tell.