An IPA offshoot that’s lilting?

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It’s been a while since I had a can of Lilt. So long in fact that I don’t even know if it’s still available. All of this was sparked off by Brewdog’s Elvis Juice. It tastes a lot like Lilt, period.

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One could imagine the Brewdog product development team used the following checklist. A grapefruit infused IPA with an aroma consisting largely of, you’ve guessed it, grapefruit. Box ticked. It’s refreshing, even at 6.5% abv. Box ticked. Did I mention that this beer is 6.5% abv? Box ticked. Make sure you produce a beer the “punks” will shout about. Box ticked (perhaps this one’s too easy). Use “Elvis” in the name to confuse people. Box ticked. Explore the use of fruit to substitute for high hop prices. Box ticked, or maybe I’m being unfair on that last one.

The beer’s fine. It’s certainly drinkable and the infused grapefruit gives it a vibrant, fresh aroma. Is this cheating though? Before you judge me too harshly, yes I’m more than aware that infused beers have been around for yonks – even for the IPA style. I’m just not convinced that this beer in particular works.

Beer geeks have been hyper-critical of the new wave of radler-style offerings popping up here, there and everywhere. Why should fruit-infused IPAs be treated differently? Okay, darker versions may be better but even then they play the Terry’s Chocolate Orange card. Overall, craft infused-beers do tend to be better balanced in bitterness and drinkability – Elvis Juice has a somewhat muted dry bitterness to it.

The appearance of so many fruit-infused IPAs of late merely point to the latest fad off-shoot of the overall style. Of course they’re appealing. I can see them becoming big sellers. They could even be useful in beer cocktails for those so inclined. A 3-3.5% abv or lower version could be huge, especially during the summer. Then again the neo-prohibitionist lobby could brand them in the alco-pop territory.

For me, I prefer a lot more out of a beer than this particular beer. If I want a refreshing grapefruit hit in abundance, I’d stick to the likes of San Pellegrino before moving onto beer. Brewdog certainly produce better beers than this but then again, who am I to judge this beer’s appeal.

Promoting the “Irishness” of craft beer

Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, has seriously stepped up its support for Irish craft beer. In the not so distant past, the agency was perceived to be more interested in promoting food rather than drink, save for a few token appearances of the likes of Jameson or Baileys. Of course this ignores the support for the occasional brewer like Carlow Brewing or Galway Hooker accessing export market data, making contacts or attending international events over the years. There has also been research reports and seminars conducted in the past. However, the inclusion of brewers in the Origin Green initiative and the focus in the Food Wise 2025 strategy underpin the renewed emphasis on Ireland’s drinks industry. Let’s not forget that newer breweries are now looking to really develop their export markets as part of their overall business strategy.

I have written on Bord Bia and the strategy of the government on various occasions on the blog. It is interesting to watch how craft beer is being promoted alongside our other food and drink offerings. There’s a trend to officially connect craft beer to other products. We have been doing so locally and independently for years but it’s great to see government channels exploiting the “Irishness” of craft beer. They’ve realises that these beers are interesting, new and have stories of their own.

Just a week ago Carlow Brewing, Boyne Brewing, Clever Man, Galway Hooker, The White Hag Brewery and Wicklow Wolf joined other drinks producers at the inaugural “Spirit of Sharing” event in London. The event was hosted in the Irish Embassy, which is a stones-throw from Buckingham Palace. It’s an impressive venue and no doubt would’ve helped attract potential customers the event. It was a somewhat regal trade event. The setting has been used effectively in the past to build export links for other industries so it’s positive that our alcoholic beverage producers can tap the same support. Let’s hope it can be replicated in other countries.

With St. Patrick’s Day upon us, initiatives ranging from greening monuments around the world to the traditional presentation of the bowl of Shamrock to the President of the USA show that we have unprecedented access for a country of our size in a ‘one week only’ sort of way. Bord Bia will of course use official events this week to promote food and drink. However, it went one step further this year by securing agreement to present both President Obama and Vice President Biden hampers fully-loaded with Irish produce. Taking pride of place in each hamper, was a bottle of O’Hara’s barrel-aged Leann Folláin. I’m sure POTUS, as a homebrewer, will appreciate this excellent beer. I have no doubt the VEEP will do so likewise and hopefully he’ll sip whilst reading one of his many collections of Yeats’ work.

Let’s see this trend continue. Enterprise Ireland is also stepping up to the mark by supporting a few craft brewers and having a new team looking at promoting food and drink exports. Even established investment funds are look at beer and whiskey as growth markets. Things are certainly on the up and I’ll drink to that.

 

New Year’s resolutions – How to become a beer sommelier

I was asked by the fantastic folks at Alltech to put together the following post for their Alltech Craft Brews and Food Fair blog on becoming a beer sommelier. You can visit the festival blog here

Some people can be incredibly difficult to buy presents for. Getting an idea of what they want can be akin to pulling teeth. I myself am guilty of such elusiveness. This causes problems for friends and family alike. They know I’m into beer: so bottles, cans, books, t-shirts and even brewery tours are common presents. Thankfully, the range and quality of beer gifts available improves year on year. However, the best gift I received was a voucher for a two-day course with the Beer Academy, yes there is such a place. This was the beginning of my journey towards becoming an accredited beer sommelier, and yes there is such a thing.

I don’t work for a brewery nor do I distribute beer, so the opportunity to learn alongside those that do was a fantastic experience. I took two years to complete the training. There are two compulsory elements before the final exam. It’s a fairly lengthy interview but there’s beer involved, lots of it. It may sound daunting but you’ll surprise yourself in how well you can taste beers blind and talk about them. Whilst the training can be completed faster, I wanted to really develop my knowledge of beer, through running tastings, hosting beer and food matching sessions and judging beer competitions. The certificates issued at each stage of training are cherished more than any academic accomplishment of mine. They also give you a badge too, which can make up for failing to get one from Blue Peter.

I know that any time someone mentions training or study, it can sound off-putting. But, this involves beer. Think of the possibilities. It’s true that you may get an odd look every now and then when you’re caught reading a book about beer at 8 a.m. but just remember – you’re studying! It’s also a great excuse to go into a pub or off-licence to try one or two new beers in order to broaden your horizons. And it’s not like you don’t do this already. You’ll broaden your knowledge of beer and food pairing, as well as cooking with beer – either enjoying a glass or two, á la the late-great Keith Floyd or adding beer to the recipe or possibly even both.

The snobbishness towards beer has lessened in recent years. It’s no longer just wine and whiskey. Increasingly beer is being recognised for its localism, and the sheer diversity of the different styles on offer. There are now 100 craft breweries on the island of Ireland and over 10,000 worldwide. It wasn’t that long ago that it was difficult to get a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in this country, but now you can easily buy beers from there too. Similarly, the offerings from California/Washington/Oregon outnumber the types of wine available from these regions. Know a whiskey drinker? Well there are barrel-aged beers which emphasise different nuances of whiskey-styles; of course Kentucky Bourbon Barrel ale is one of the best-known and popular examples.

Education can improve and round out one’s knowledge of any subject. Learning about beer is mostly trial and error. The education part helps gives you new tools and approaches to appreciating and evaluating beer. There’s a reason why your beer may look, taste or smell like that. It’s important that those in the trade up their knowledge of beer. While this is happening, it’s happening slowly. And it shouldn’t stop there. There’s room for consumers to develop their beer knowledge. Craft beer recommendations are often spread by word-of-mouth, through social media and blogs. It’s important that people get to know the beers they like, why they like them and just importantly if a beer could be “off” due to a brewing hiccup or a fault with the bottle or tap.The added bonus from doing an accredited training course is that you get to judge serious beer competitions. It’s important for the brewers that they have their beers judged to common criteria by people trained in how to assess them. I was invited to judge the Dublin Craft Beer Cup in 2015 and tried approximately 140 beers over two days. Beer judging can be a wonderful test of endurance. You’re writing detailed notes and scoring each beer. It’s hard work but also you get to meet great people.Tasting and judging beers are only part of the story. There are opportunities to meet brewers, visit their breweries and try their latest releases, some before they go on sale. You can use the accreditation as much or as little as you want. I’ve recently returned from visiting 20 breweries in the U.S. over a ten day period. You can expect to be invited to judge beer competitions overseas and to attend international beer festivals. I’ve even received invitations to attend a couple of hop and grain harvests.

Becoming an accredited beer sommelier should be just a start. There is almost no end to the beers out there. This year alone, I’d say the number of beers I’ve tried is in the high hundreds. I keep a running total through the notes I keep and photos taken. There’s always a beer festival on the horizon, like the Alltech Craft Brews and Food Fair, so tickets to these can become a present for the craft beer enthusiast too.

The Alltech Craft Brews & Food Fair takes place in the Convention Centre Dublin, 5-7 February 2016. Tickets from €15.00 online (excluding booking fee) or €20.00 at the door . You can also purchase tickets from participating Centra & SuperValu stores.

Opening Hours:

  • Friday, February 5th: 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
  • Saturday, February 6th: 12.30 p.m. – 10 p.m.
  • Sunday, February 7th: 12.30 p.m. – 7 p.m.

2015 – that went quick

It’s New Year’s Eve, where did that year go? What a year for beer in Ireland. There’s now 100 breweries dotted across the island. There was a serious increase in the number of beer festivals and competitions. Let’s not forget the Irish brewers who brought home international awards and we must tip our hats to those who opened up new export markets.

Budget 2016 saw no increase in excise or VAT but more importantly, further benefits for microbreweries. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 was published and two weeks later the European Court of Justice rejected Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) proposed for Scotland. Minister Varadkar stated his determination to push ahead regardless with MUP in Ireland – an election stunt? Surely not but it’s difficult to see how the Irish government can bypass the criteria set down in the ECJ judgement. Let’s hope that a future response is not to bluntly raise excise and blame the ECJ. Too much attention has been placed on MUP and less on the advertising and promotional restrictions (including point of sale), structural separation in retail stores etc.

The bill is poorly drafted, lacking clarity and certainty. Publications can only have 20% advertising for alcohol or related products – this could cause as much problems for Aer Lingus’ Cara magazine as for trade magazines. Breaches of the new legislation could now result in criminal conviction. This is a concern for smaller breweries who weren’t involved with the voluntary codes on advertising. Craft brewers use a lot more imagery in their labels that could run afoul of the legislation if passed. This all depends on the results of the election of course. There’s no time for passage of such a bill ahead of the likely polling day of Friday 26 February 2016. Although the Taoiseach may go to the Park on the first day back, resulting in the election being held on the opening day of the Alltech Craft Brews & Food Festival (5-7 February in the Convention Centre Dublin).

The two largest brewing concerns – AB InBev & SABMiller – merged. They now account for 1 out of every 3 beers sold. A number of high profile breweries lost their “craft” status in 2015. Closer to home, the march of Cute Hoor continues. Guinness launched Hop House 13 and it has become a big success for them. It occupies a similar space to Fuller’s Honey Dew. The St. James’ Gate site has also added a brewery pub to its onsite visitor experiences. However, the Open Gate Brewery is under the creative stewardship of self-thought Jason Carroll. Jason spent a few years with Franciscan Well but far longer brewing up the strangest concoctions possible. Expect great things from him both next year and into the future.

So 2016 is upon us. What will it bring? Will we see a string of 1916 centenary beers? Possibly. The one thing for certain is that it won’t be dull. The quality, range and availability of craft beer in Ireland will only get better.

Depeche Moeder Lambic – a fashionable dispatch from Brussels

The centre of Brussels has been undergoing a fair bit of transformation over the past few years. This is not before time. Parts of the city had become fairly run down and I’m just talking about the tourist spots. This took away from enjoyment of stunningly beautiful areas such as the Grand Place.

Drinking spots haven’t been immune from this push for a facelift. Delirium has expanded from one large basement area to what has been dubbed a village, taking over all the premises along the narrow laneway and even pushing through to the next street over. BrewDog have just opened a bar in this Other bars have been given at least a lick of paint, no doubt driven by the smoking ban taking hold.

What the centre of this European capital lacks is plenty of options for al fresco drinking. I’m certainly not talking about overpriced bars and restaurants in the Grand Place. Day-trippers to Brussels for EU-related business often find themselves sequestered in featureless and too frequently window-less meeting rooms for hours on end. The thought of a nice beer before heading to the airport is much desired.

The European Quarter is unimaginative when it comes to beer offerings
The European Quarter is unimaginative when it comes to beer offerings

The bars of the European Quarter are relatively unimaginative in terms of the beers they carry. Sure there are a few decent ones available in bottles but most are more than familiar to what you can get at home. Some local bars off the beaten path are marginally better but you have to seek these out and time may not be on your hands.

The safest bet is to head into town on the Metro but to where? One area that has come on in the past few years is Place Fontainas. This is located between Rue du Midi down from the Bourse and a couple of blocks below the Mannequin Pis. One bar in particular needs to be visited – Moeder Lambic Fontainas.

Opened in 2009, this is the sister pub to the original bar located in the suburbs of Saint-Gilles. The original is a classic should be a must on any beery bucket-list. However, it’s trickier to get too and sadly not convenient when a decent after work beer is in order, especially if you’ve a flight to catch.

The pub is modern, long, narrow and post-industrialist. Booths are available on both sides with seating at the bar too. However, it can get fairly busy with people ordering, asking questions and those taking snaps of their beer (me included) so a bar stool may not necessarily grant you any desired solitude. The bar has great wifi too. There’s a big terrace out front so it’s a great place to have a drink on warmer evenings but will still be a place for smokers come wintertime.

The beer list is substantive, with local specialities on draught. There’s 40 taps with some international offering as well. Of course there’s cask lambics on offer. The bottle list is selective and of high quality. On my last few visits, however, I’ve tended to stick with beers from local Brussels brewery, Brasserie de la Senne.

Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic
Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic

Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic
Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic
First up is Band of Brothers that is produced exclusively for the bar. It’s eye opening at only 3.5% ABV in a town known for stronger beers. Suspicions that even the tap water comes in at a higher ABV. Joking aside, Belgium like elsewhere is seeing a growing thirst for lower strength but not necessarily poorer quality beers. This beer is case and point.

It arrives with a sense that it’s going to be refreshing, which is just perfect for a hot and humid day in Brussels. It’s almost cloudy pineapple juice with a thick frothy head. There’s pineapple and hints of mango on the nose. It’s creamy on first taste before the fresh tropical fruit bitterness takes over. It’s clean drinking. It may appear a little thin but again, it’s only 3.5% abv. Refreshment is its game. You have to take this in the same vein as enjoying the last few spoonfuls of a citrus sorbet that has become somewhat diluted from the melted ice – it’s still bitter and still hits the spot.

While sessionable as a pint, it’s always nice to have Tara’s Boulba in a 33cl pour
While sessionable as a pint, it’s always nice to have Tara’s Boulba in a 33cl pour
Next up has to be Tara’s Boulba from the same brewery and is its best known beer. The brewery has developed a remarkable reputation in a short-space of time for producing session-friendly and hop-forward beers. Taras Boulba weighs in at 4.5% ABV. Yes, it’s perfect for consuming by the pint (or half-litre, it is Belgium after-all) but there’s something pleasurable by having it in a smaller pour and in a far cooler glass.

While sessionable as a pint, it's always nice to have Tara's Boulba in a 33cl pour
While sessionable as a pint, it’s always nice to have Tara’s Boulba in a 33cl pour

Taras Boulba pours a cloudy yellow gold with hints of citrus fruit and banana on the nose. It comes across a little spicy also. It’s topped by a thick dollop of foam. Effervescent with a growing citrus bitterness. It finishes dry and spicy, although you never escape the citrus fruit bitterness. Yeast notes are detectable throughout. If this was released by an American brewery, it might have been called a session White IPA, which shows the blurred or more likely imaginary lines with the style.

So two fantastic beers to set you up for the night or in my case for the trip back to the airport. However, the bar and beers make the short 10 minute walk back uphill to Gare Central pleasantly passable. You may even have the opportunity to smile sarcastically at those who opted just to have a can of Jupiler or Maes on the rain to the airport. As for beers at Brussels Zaventem, you can forget about it. They’re simply not worth the money.