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.

The most wonderful time for beer

The only bit of Christmas shopping I like is carefully selecting the beers to enjoy over the holiday period. The most important choices are the beers to be savoured alongise the Christmas meal itself.

Food and beer pairings can be a joy but also at times the attempts to get them right can be a real test of endurance. Christmas Day dinner can be one of those occasions where choosing the right beers can be a particular ordeal, simply because of the range of food and differing flavours being experienced. One caveat is that Christmas seasonal beers may not be ideal because of the strong flavours contained within. These can be perfect on their own (e.g. BrewDog’s Hoppy Christmas while decorating the Christmas tree) but depending on the specific profile of each beer, they can be tricky to match with food, particularly a Christmas menu.

Menus of course vary between households but a common thread exists – deep, rich and luxurious foods that will appeal to a broad range of ages and people around the table. Some may go with a 1970s style with a prawn cocktail to start and a trifle to finish but others may have soup or light starter finishing off with the traditional heavyweight Christmas pudding. At the heart of most menus will be a roast. An obvious choice given so many dishes to be prepared for one meal, taking advantage of a slow-cooking main course helps preserve the sanity of the chef.

Christmas Menu

Starters

Prawn Cocktail

The problem with this course is not necessarily being careful not to overpower the prawns themselves but the Marie Rose sauce. The tang of the ketchup is the key feature of this dish.

Verdict: Galway Hooker is a fantastic match (it would also be an excellent choice for a Christmas all rounder).

Smoked Salmon

This can go in many directions. A Weisse beer that has strong lemony-citrus notes such as Franciscan Well’s Friar Weisse would work here as could O’Hara’s Curim Gold. Belgian Wit beers would be okay but to be aware that not everyone likes coriander as much as one might think. Hitachino Nest’s Weisse is a stunning match for smoked salmon (tried it at a tasting earlier this year), after all Japanese independent breweries are making incredible beers that match fish perfectly. I’m also thinking of the smoke and some porters would work here (e.g.  Five Lamps’ Blackpitts porter would bring something to the dish). A light smoked taste with also a bit of body would be O’Hara’s Stout. While it has flaked oats in the beer, a wholemeal stout itself could be too filling. We’re not having a sandwich here and we have to leave room for the main course itself. For citrus aromas and flavour, it’s easy to go down the route of an IPA but you should air on the side of caution. We would need an IPA that doesn’t have too much heft in the body in terms of caramel malt. An interesting possibility to use a black IPA (e.g. burnt notes in Eight Degrees’ Zeus along with some citrus character but have already selected one of theirs for later).

Verdict: Estrella Damm Inedit, need I say more. The bottle brings a certain celebration to the proceedings. It just pairs like no other, after-all it was perfectly crafted to accompany many a dish at the now closed elBulli. Even with the subtle spiciness of the coriander, this wheat beer brings champagne-like joy to the drinker.

Pate with Cumberland sauce

This starter has been chosen to represent the “cold” course, which buys you precious time on the day to focus on the other courses (also it’s Christmas for the Chef as well).

Verdict: Crafty Dan’s Big Ben, which evokes bright red fruits and picks up on the cumberland sauce. It has slight notes on the aroma with nutty flavours, but the fruits with a light spicing making this an excellent pairing (especially with the bread on the table).

Main Course

Roast Turkey, all the trimmings etc

As we eat an usual array of food during one sitting, an easy bet would be an ale (especially a strong ale if you want to indulge) from the land of pie and mash. However, there’s a complete overload of flavours on the table from the roast turkey and ham to other meats (or vegetable roasts), the herbs and spices that permeate both the stuffing and the side dishes, the cranberry sauce and other condiments. Also in keeping with a little bit of luxury that is Christmas dinner, the bottle is also important. For this the large sharing bottles are required because they capture the conviviality of the meal itself. A Bière de Garde such as 3 Monts, pick up on the herbaceaous aspects of the meal as well as bring a welcome refreshment with each sip.

Verdict: Chimay Première (Red) is ideal. It is not as full bodied as the Grand Reserve but it interesting and would match the roast flavours, including the slight caramel sweetness that occurs. The fact that it’s a Trappist offering, it lends a certain reverential awe to the day itself. Belgian Dubbels and Tripels ideally match large and hearty meals.

Desert

Christmas Pudding/Chocolate/rich desert

After gorging on 3 courses, the pace starts to slow and conscious that the board games might make an appearance, it’s time to pair the desert and coffee course with what better than a strong stout that exudes coffee and chocolate notes that perfectly complement this course. Of course, if it was just the Christmas Pudding or cake, a barley wine like Louder from the Porterhouse or Belgian Quad would work here equally.

Verdict: Eight Degrees’ Russian Imperial Stout because it’s good to celebrate all the good things in life and what’s better than to toast another remarkable year for Irish brewing than an excellent strong stout. Forget the espresso, the kitchen’s now closed.

Post-meal simply enjoying Christmas night

This is for when people decamp to couches and the Christmas present DVD box-sets come out or a movie on the TV. This is time for a sipping beer that will also pair along with the moment that when you think you couldn’t eat any more, one feels the need to make a sandwich with the leftovers. For me, I’ve always been partial to Delirium Tremens because there’s a fair bit of pleasant complexity going on. This could the time to open the O’Hara’s Double IPA or if you have some relatively strong beer in stock.

Verdict: Brooklyn Local No.2 because I want to keep in with the dark Belgian strong ales. This is luxuriant in its spiciness with sweetness coming from of honey which compliments the dark fruit and chocolate flavours.

 

 

Enjoy the Founders 5 in Ireland

Michigan is one of those States that does not necessarily have strong connections with Ireland. It’s heavily influenced by Germanic immigration. Known because of the American auto-industry, Motown and Detroit is the home town of 8-miler Eminem and its most famous son, Beverly Hills Cop Axel Foley.  However, beers from Founders Brewing Co. from Grand Rapids have made it over this side of the Atlantic and they can create a new affinity with the Great Lakes State. In the brewery’s own words it has “been lucky to evolve into one of the highest recognized breweries in the United States” and has been “ranked in the top four breweries in the world by Ratebeer.com for the past four years in a row (4th in 2010, 2nd in 2011 and 2012, 3rd in 2013)”.

I have had the opportunity to spend some time visiting my wife’s family in Michigan and it quickly became apparent that this is a State that is serious about its beer. I suppose it would have to be the case because it’s bloody freezing there (I would like to point out that I didn’t visit in the summer and it was snowing when I was there at the beginning of October). Big, bold and hoppy flavours abound (Shorts Brewing Co. up in Bellaire, Michigan is a great example – it also has ballroom dancing if you’re that way inclined). Michiganders are a hardy bunch all the more so because of the hardships the State has endured over the slow decline of heavy industry and naturally, they needed the beers to match.

American craft breweries are famous for having a “philosophy”. They’re held in the same reverential awe like Jerry Maguire’s “The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business” mission statement. In the case of Founders, the company’s “simple” philosophy is:  “We don’t brew beer for the masses. Instead, our beers are crafted for a chosen few, a small cadre of renegades and rebels who enjoy a beer that pushes the limits of what is commonly accepted as taste. In short, we make beer for people like us.”

Five beers from Founders’ core range have made it to Ireland and they give a great insight to Michigan beer. Unfortunately, due to a beer tasting that I was hosting I was unable to attend the event in Dublin on 10 October where Drogheda-native Niall Little who from the Founders’ sales team (coincidentally he worked with one of my wife’s cousins in a previous distribution company) introduced the beers to a Dublin audience. Apparently they’re obsessed with drinking beers as fresh as possible over in Founders and you can read an excellent piece by @Beermack_ on the event. So having all five beers at home, I naturally decided to have a little tasting by myself. I also got into the spirit by watching some of the chat between my Michigander relatives about the college football games (they seem to be equally split between Michigan State and the Wolverines). Interestingly, Michigan got beaten in overtime by Penn State, who will be playing in Croke Park next August.

All-day IPA (4.7%)

Plenty of pine and orangey citrus aroma with a tangerine-sweet flavour. Certainly not full bodied and as it says on the tin (or label in this case), it can be enjoyed all day long. Labelling hints at outdoors and the pine aroma recreates this in a glass. Perfectly sessionable with a bitter kick to boot. What’s great is that this beer adds the the growing number of fantastic sub-5% abv hoppy beers on sale in Ireland (e.g. Brewdog’s Dead Pony Club and Continuum by Hardknott).

Dry hopped Pale Ale (5.4%)

The ale with plenty of Cascade hops. Expecting the usual citrusy grapefruit traits but certainly not the sweet like aroma this beer displayed. Do you remember Trebor Fruit Salad? If you do, that’s the type of pinapple perfume you get on this beer. The beer’s freshness gave the aroma a strong reminiscence of recently harvested red fruits particularly strawberry and cranberry. Extremely dry tasting, the fruit flavours try to break through at first but they quickly surrender.

Centennial IPA (7.2%)

Can be summed up as sweet peach and pineapple in a glass. Founders may upset hopheads because they like to focus on balance and they back up their beers with a sweet malt body. The initially a sweet taste makes a swift but smooth transition to a dry, bitter body. Pleasantly bitter for a straight-up IPA.

Founders Porter (6.5%)

American brewers brew some remarkable porters and serious breweries all have at least one excellent porter in their repertoire. Founders is no different and theirs is extremely rich with a sweet velvet full-body. It has the hallmarks of a good Belgian Dubbel but not as sweet as a barley wine. Vinous notes on the nose. Everything signals chocolate from its tan head to its black oil appearance to its flavour of course. There’s s smoky aftertaste and sharp dark chocolate bitterness – a combination from the black malts and the copious amount of hops added.

Dirty bastard (8.5%)

I’m not a whiskey drinker but this beer has those familiar vanilla notes that you would find in Jameson. I do however like Scotch Ales but recognise that they are an acquired taste. This is very much in the category of sipping beers, much like McChouffe. Sweet notes coming through upon tasting but the vanilla flavours remain throughout. The ale is chewy in keeping with its toffee-like flavours but thankfully it is not overly sweet. There’s a tiny lacing for a head and a ruby reddish/ruddy brown appearance. Apparently this is their flagship beer.