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.

A day for “duty free” pints

Today is the first Tax Free day in Ireland (well, Dublin really). It’s an initiative by a group of pubs who have come together to raise the awareness amongst pub goers the effects that excise duties and VAT has on the price of alcohol. The tactic is modelled on a similar one in the UK, now in its fourth year and coincidentally took place yesterday.

This is the latest initiative in the campaign to get the Irish Government reduce the excise duties. Irish consumers pay the second highest tax rates on alcohol in the EU and we’re the most expensive country in the Eurozone for buying booze, we’re approximately 70% above the Eurozone average. The Support Your Local campaign has bought many different parts of the industry together to put a more unified voice to Government but this step by the publicans alone has the ability to put the issue front and centre of the consumers themselves.

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Tax is certainly a complex issue and one that many admit to neither understanding nor having any real interest in. But when it comes to what we buy, we should really pay attention. Excise and VAT hit us where it hurts. We often hear about the regressive nature of them and they are, hitting lower income earners disproportionately. They’re a direct tax on the consumer because more likely than not they’re passed on in full to consumers in the form of higher prices. In fact our inflation level has remained largely constant but the proportion of alcohol’s contribution to the overall inflation level has steadily increased.

With less than three weeks to Budget Day, the campaign is gaining momentum. Will it have the same result as the campaign to retain the 9% VAT rate for the tourism sector? It’s strange for tourists to see the likes of Jameson whisky more expensive in Ireland than at home. However, I would hope that Government pays close attention the effects that excise coupled with VAT is having on the domestic economy. Halting the increase in excise duties would help, just that little bit.

We simply have to get away from the Economics 101 practice of budgeting. It should not be a case of when in doubt, look to the “usual suspects” to raise cash. We’ve a burgeoning indigenous alcohol industry and taxing their product out of the market will help no one in the long term.

Football & beer is a balancing act

The new football leagues across are kicking off during the month of August (Sheffield Wednesday thankfully started with a win) and the new English Premier League season starts this weekend. This is not going to be a post about beers and their local teams but rather an emerging trend afflicting both beer and football, the lack of balance.

I had the opportunity to attend a tasting given by Doug Odell recently (more on that later this month) and his family-owned business produce wonderfully balanced beers out of Fort Collins, Colorado. This got me thinking about a number of beers, seasonal or otherwise, that are simply lacking in something. A fair few were using hop assertiveness as a sort of masking-agent in a similar manner to over seasoning a pasta sauce to cover up or more likely to compensate deficiencies. Now, this is where the comparison with football comes in.

Over recent seasons there’s been a rise in the number of goals scored in football matches (see below). In the Premier League for instance, the average has risen from approximately 2.5 goals per game to 2.8 since 2006. In the past three World Cups, it has been a rise from an average of 2.3 to just under 2.7 goals per game. More goals are being scored and worryingly less of premium is now placed on defence. The imbalance within teams can be seen. Take for instance Robin Van Persie and his £24 million transfer to Manchester United back in 2012. The club appears to have calculated in some sort of Moneyball-esque fashion that his 26 goals that title-winning season would more than offset the deficiencies in their back four.

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Beers can go one way or the other. They can be too sweet or eye-wateringly bitter but what makes a good beer is balance, a true skill and craft brewers often refine this through trial and error. We can see some of our favourite beers evolving over time but sadly the obverse is also true, how often can we read how some perennial favourites of old are no longer the same (Duvel anyone?). Balance in beer can be subjective of course. Hopheads for instance go looking for the bitterness, although they don’t want to search to hard; they’d rather be hit up front and have it continue right through to the end.

Balance in both beer and football depends on its constituent components. One doesn’t have to sacrifice itself for the sake of another however. A team that can score a shed load of goals and defend well can be a force to be reckoned with. The art of defending is not the same of playing defensively.  It can be the same with beer. Hops, malt, yeast and water can work together in harmony. Take a superb IPA like Magic Rock’s Cannonball, which has got the much desired hop aromas, flavour and bitterness in abundance but is importantly balanced by a sweet malt base. It brings out the sweet citrus flavours. Some of the newer European IPAs are swapping caramel and/or biscuit bases of their American cousins in favour of clean bodies that emphasise the freshness of the hops used. The same rings through with the use of other additions to beer (e.g. herbs, spices and fruit) and their respective impact on other ingredients. Too much coriander in a Belgian Wit for instance and that’s what dominates.

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So last week I finally cracked open a bottle of Vote Sepp from BrewDog, a single hopped wheat beer with hibiscus flower. It’s the latest in their line of beer satirism and Ryanair-like tendency for self-promotion. Their target this time is “tireless football führer, Mr Blatter”, particularly due to the farcical awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar (not just because they’re in the brewing game).

The beer is apparently “best served from brown paper envelopes to aid drinking with greased palms” but I only had a trusty tasting glass at hand. It poured like sparkling rosé, which raised some eyebrows from fellow customers. The head can be best described as a dollop or two of cream. The aroma consisted of floral notes. Thanks to the use of the Motueka hop, it drank dry and flowery. There were lemon and lime flavours too. However, it lacked the anticipated tartness and was more watery than flavoursome as one would hope from the addition of wheat. It was a beer that was lacking and thankfully trying this in Probus Wines, Paul suggested trying it with a squeeze of lemon juice to see how it would be with a higher level of tartness and it undoubtedly improved.

The beer is far from the promised “perfect balance of tartness, bitterness and body”. Was this the final satirical poke from the BrewDog boys?  Fifa, the Blatter-headed organisation, which manages the beautiful game is intensely disliked due to accusations of bribery, fraud and the like? Is it similar to watching the Premiership on Sky Sports that tells us the very game was a cracker even though we watched it with our very eyes and came to a different conclusion? If it is, then fair play to Fraserburgh’s finest for pulling it off, otherwise this beer is simply living off their hype. Some of these releases, while small batched, put me off their better balanced beers in terms of Punk IPA, the often under-appreciated 5am Saint and of course Hardcore IPA.

But with the new season upon us, one can only hope the quality of the football and the beer will improve through achieving better balance…

Things even peachier for US craft beer

Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.

At the beginning of July I posted a piece on the US craft beer industry and the healthy state it was in. I based this on data available from the Brewers Association (BA). Since then, however, new data was released by Internal Revenue Service covering breweries operating at the end of June 2014 in the US and was published by the BA. There are now 3,040 breweries across the US. This is represents a 7.7% increase in breweries since 2013 and the number of breweries operating is at the highest level since the 1870s.The BA estimates that 99% of breweries are craft and that the majority of Americans are no more than 10 miles away from a brewery. The figures aren’t fully analysed and I’m looking forward to reading them when they’re released.

In the same piece, I mentioned that the Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat from Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. was going to be available in limited quantities in Ireland. I had the opportunity to taste it this past weekend. You’re immediately hit by an aroma of sweet peach and vanilla oak. There’s also a nose tingling effect resulting from the bourbon warmth. With the head clinging to the side of the glass, it pours extremely pale, a light gold and is filtered clear.

You get the peach up front but the bourbon takes over, matches with the sweetness though. However, you’re hit by the aroma on each sip; similar to a tropical shampoo taking over your senses when washing your hair. It’s drinkable, dangerously so when compared with the snifter sipper that is the bourbon barrel ale. This beer has also spent six weeks in used casks.

I’m not one for cocktails (I prefer the Bellini with just the champagne) but I can see that at 8% ABV this beer is aimed at those who do. On the other hand, when you take into account the popularity of fruit wheat beers out there and in particular Sweetwater Blue (with blueberries and at 4.9%) out of Atlanta, this beer could perhaps be lower in alcohol and still achieve the same impact. Doing something like that could prove to be a big seller (even on a seasonal basis) if they wanted to re-release it on a more regular basis.

Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.
Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.

It would be good to see some more lower alcohol bourbon-inspired ales on the market. Take for instance BrewDog’s Bourbon Baby at 5.8% ABV. It’s a scotch ale aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels. There’s rich, sweet fruits on huge nose. The beer pours dark and topped by a frothy head. There’s the expected vanilla woody notes on huge taste and sweetness continues into the finish complete with a warming sensation. According to Fraserburgh’s finest: “This is light. This is dark. This is Bourbon Baby”.

There's certainly room in the market for lower (albeit not too much) bourbon barrel aged beers
There’s certainly room in the market for lower (albeit not too much) bourbon barrel aged beers

The Red Devils: bitter in victory or defeat thanks to the USA

Ahead of tonight’s match between the USA and Belgium in the second round of the World Cup in Brazil, I thought what better way to mark this game then by doing a piece on the transatlantic knowledge exchange of hops. This is the first of two pieces I’m doing on hoppy Belgian beers. This piece focusses on the Tripel style with the anti certainly upped in terms of hop usage. A lot has happened since Urtherl Hop-It first burst onto the scene back in 2005.

A popular standard bearer has to be the excellent La Chouffe Houblon Dobbelen IPA Tripel The beer pours a hazy golden colour with lemon and herbs on the nose. It’s a case of initial sweetness meets dry bitterness, thanks to the addition of Tommahwak (houblon being the French word for hops).  There’s a good bitter bite in the huge finish. Good on draught but better in the bottle. Beer lore has it that this beer from the Ardennes took the mantle of the bitterest Belgian beer title away from Orval. Following on from Brasserie d’Achouffe founded back in 1981the beer itself being sold for the first time in 2006, new and old breweries have been pushing the boundaries for beers much as new breweries around the world have been doing for brewing traditions in their countries.

Sometimes it's good to be bitter
Sometimes it’s good to be bitter

Achouffe is part of the Duvel Moorgat collection of breweries, which owns the likes of Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York. It also owns Vedett, a beer known more for the different photos on back of the bottle (making the drinker the star) rather than for a memorable drink. The beer became fashionable in Brussels about a decade ago and so it is surprising that it too has come out with an IPA. Billed as a 6% abv “extra ordinary” IPA, it pours a clear golden colour. It is topped by a fair amount of Belgian lace. There are plenty of tropical fruit notes on the nose. It drinks bitter and fairly sweet with the prerequisite bitter finish. However, it is slightly lacking in the body and makes this beer nothing extraordinary.

Vedette "Extra Ordinary" IPA
Vedett “Extra Ordinary” IPA

Last but not least is a beer for tonight’s match between the US and de Rode Duivels, les Diables Rouges, die Roten Teufel (one mustn’t forget about the small German-speaking area) or to us, simply the Red Devils. Duvel is one of the more instantly recognisable Belgian beers out there and perhaps this has affected the level of respect shown to it. It remains a good benchmark for Belgian strong golden ales. However, to regain some of the interest in Devil beer (Duvel being Flemish for devil), they produced an extremely limited edition triple hop version back in 200. Amarillo was added to the usual hop mix of Czech Saaz and Styrian Goldings. Due to the campaigning of a Belgian beer club, the Lambikstoempers (they collected 17,000 signatures through a Facebook campaign), the beer was brewed once more in 2010. Thankfully by 2012, it was decided to make Tripel Hop an annual limited release but changing the third hop variety used in each edition. Besides Amarillo, versions with Citra© and Sorachi Ace have also been sold.

Sensory overload with Duvel Tripel Hop in a "ballon"
Sensory overload with Duvel Tripel Hop in a “ballon”

Duvel Tripel Hop 2014 features the powerhouse addition of Mosaic. This is a hop that packs in as much of the hop aromas prized in new world hops. There are lashings of citrus, tropical fruits, herbs and pine. However, it’s grapefruit that emerges successfully from the fight with the pear and pepper aroma from the beer’s yeast. The Duvel glass, the “ballon” makes drinking the classic Duvel a real pleasure but this glass comes into its own with Tripel Hop. The collective aroma from the beer becomes pleasurably intoxicating, all the more with the artistry in the glass due to the pour of Duvel. A light golden colour topped with a spectacular head. It initially drinks dry and slightly bitter. Duvel is known for being sublimely effervescent but this version takes it to another level and becomes sherbert-like in the finish. Intriguing for a beer that comes in at 9.5% abv.

Regardless of who wins the match tonight, it’s interesting to know that both countries’ supporters are thankful for the brewing traditions of the other.