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.

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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A Thursday tasting with BrewDog

BrewDog’s European Business Development Manager Jonny Reid made a quick stopover in Dublin recently. Four Corners distribute their beers in Ireland and got Jonny to host a tasting in Probus Wines. The brewery has an ardent following (and I’m not counting those in the Equity for Punks scheme) and over 50 showed up for this Thursday night tasting.

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Jonny gave the history of the company and talked us through the remarkable growth the brewery has had in its 7 year history. He may not brew the beers himself but he represents the other part of the company, which is a key part of their success. They not only wanted to put out good beers but also for people to know who they are and what they stand for. For the craft beer industry, it can be difficult to attract attention but for BrewDog, they combine good beers with a healthy dose of “he who shouts loudest” to attract attention in the crowded market-place.

BrewDog's Jonny Reid in full flight
BrewDog’s Jonny Reid in full flight
Attendees glued to Jonny
Attendees glued to Jonny

So on the night four beers from their core range were sampled. These were Nanny State, 5am Saint, Hoppy Christmas, Hardcore IPA. However, the tasting wasn’t quite finished yet. There was a surprise beer to be tasted that many haven’t had before (usually sells out quickly when it’s available on these shores) Tokyo*, which has been dubbed an “Intergalactic Stout”. Due to the number in attendance this beer had sadly to be rationed, which is perhaps no bad thing as it weighs in at 16.5% abv.

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Cheers to Jonny (who had to host the tasting standing on top of a stool) and the Four Corners crew and Probus’ Paul Fogarty for putting this on. BrewDog have put out the following tasting notes and information on these beers in their core range. image  image

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Selling foreignness to the local drinker

After leaving a match in Donnybrook, I couldn’t help but be struck by 3 billboards clustered around the same intersection advertising big beer. There was one promoting Peroni in a manner influenced by the George Clooney Nespresso ads, one from Budweiser how they can help you get a job and one promoting Kronenbourg 1664 drawing on classical French alcohol advertising practices of old.

Three billboards in close proximity promoting beer. All three being lagers. Two promoting the foreignness of the beer and one just an out-and-out escapism message (or perhaps AB InBev are giving up brewing & reinventing themselves as a recruitment company). Anyway, they show that a traditional Big Beer marketing tactic’s alive and kicking.

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Not content with dipping their toes into the “crafty beer” market, they still persist with countering the “lack of choice” argument with launching foreign brands on a market. It’s as if they use the same play book from back in the days of the East India Company. Do they think beer drinkers still eagerly scan the papers for notices of what wondrous, seemingly exotic and possibly much sought-after beers to arrive off the boat? Well, the ads indicate that the big selling points of one the beers in question is that they are foreign and foreign means better, more exotic – hell they must be if they went to the trouble of shipping them. Well, that may imply of course the beers are imported and not brewed locally (under contract potentially).

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Above all, it’s a back handed slap to the local independent brewing industry. It’s not an Irish thing nor a British one, it’s one that’s being repeated all over the place. Look at the US, Molson Coors have Blue Moon to get a piece of the “choice” market and a response from AB InBev was to push a beer from the “largest micro-brewery in the world”, namely Stella Artois. Seriously they tried to position Stella in the craft market on the basis that the Belgians know brewing. It’s similar to when in the 1980s, the microchip & PC revolution was taking hold in the US and the Soviets were trying to build the largest computer. They simply miss the point. They really only do this with lager, with the exception of the occasional wheat beer.

Big beer can put these new beers into existing establishments and many fail to take root. Bar owners have been known to complain that these beers often are slow to shift (not unique enough perhaps?) and can be reluctant to try carrying a craft beer (bottles can be an easier sell to them). However, continuously launching new beer brands can help attune consumers to break with existing brands and try other things. We need to ensure they get the opportunity to try something really special.

Too early for Christmas?

Yes, folks it almost upon us whether we want to start thinking about it or not. For those not watching Netflix (although look at the number of seasonal movies being added), we can’t escape the Christmas ads on TV nor the Christmas songs being blended into an in-store playlist. The Christmas lights are not only up but they’re on in the city centre. Selection boxes were being sold as far back as the start of September. Yet, we’re still only two-thirds the way though of November. There’s 10 days to go of seeing people with questionable facial hair. However, a big shoutout to Bo Bristle & it’s #GetYourBristlesOut team, donate to them here: http://ie.movember.com/team/1541521 (soon the facial hair will be back to being owned by the hipsters)

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What makes the fast approaching silly season palatable is the arrival of Christmas beers on the shelves. However those produced by Irish breweries are only starting to arrive  with one of my perennial favourites being Dungarvan’s Coffee & Oatmeal Stout. I’ve kept a bottle from each year it has been released. More seasonal offerings from the likes of Eight Degrees, White Gypsy and Bru Brewery.

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Christmas craft imports starting hitting these shores at the beginning of November. This is natural because of shipping issues and making sure it arrives on the shelves in plenty of time to sell it. Early offerings include the return of Hoppy Christmas & Santa Paws from BrewDog, Shepherd Neame’s Christmas Ale and three from Mikkeller.

The range of 75cl bottles available in off-licences should be available in greater numbers than during the rest of the year. Apart from a few usual “Belgian” suspects, they can be hard to come by at other times. However, it’s also a time to acquire some barrel-aged stouts from the likes of O’Hara’s & the Franciscan Well. Hopefully the White Gypsy range will be available too. Also, putting in an appearance are the gift boxes that usually contain a few bottles and a glass or two.

Needless to say the range of the seasonal offerings will grow over the next week or two. On the Continent the 6 of December marks the beginning of the festive period but here the season kicks into overdrive  once this month’s pay checks arrive in people’s bank accounts. Regardless there’ll be plenty of good drinking between no and new year.