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.

 

 

Woohoo, craft beer can still sponsor what now?

In the wake of Budget 2014 with 10 cents added to the pint (before VAT being applied) and the announcement that minimum pricing is to be introduced, Government also decided to put off the banning on alcohol advertising at sporting events. Various sporting bodies and associations breathed a sigh of relief because it removed the risk of losing a valuable source of income. This will of course be of little benefit to Ireland’s craft breweries but the growth in independent breweries elsewhere have seen them encroach into the previous taboo area of mainstream  sports advertising and sponsorship.

Take for instance that the second-tier of English rugby is the Green King IPA Championship. Marston’s Pedigree is the official beer of English cricket and its English Pale Ale is a big seller at Lords. The Kent county cricket team is sponsored by Spitfire. The best craft beer sports sponsorship link-up has to involve newly arrived to Irish shores Dale’s Pale Ale from Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewing. It holds the honour of being the very first Nascar-branded beer.

Source: www.oskarblues.com

With the Heineken Cup seemingly in disarray and a new competition structure in the offing, might we see some interesting sponsorship deals? For example, the Cork County teams being sponsored by Franciscan Well? Singha is now the official beer of the 2015 Rugby World Cup but if Ireland hosts it in 2023, will one of our existing independent breweries provide the official beer? Unlikely but I’d settle for more choice at sports venues. However, they’d limited to draft or taking a page from US craft breweries, cans. I don’t think too many Irish breweries would want to produce beers in plastic bottles (although maybe the technology will improve over time) because they’ve left that behind in the early home-brewing days.

So in short the wasn’t too much to cheer the Irish independent brewers in the Budget, except for the fact that the 9% VAT rate is retained and we have seen the growth in pairing good food and beer. Also, there were positive measures introduced to support entrepreneurs such as changes to the Employment and Investment Incentive Scheme and Capital Gains Tax. The ‘Start Your Own Business’ scheme grants a two-year exemption from income tax to founders  who have been receiving social welfare for fifteen months or more (up to a limit of €40,000). This could be an opportunity for Beer Ireland and the Taste 4 Success Skillnet to really make a difference because those already on the live register availing of their courses/network could be really encouraged to go out and start their own brewery. Let’s hope these measures work.

Musings on the best Irish beer fest yet

The All-Ireland Craft Beer and Cider Festival has attracted a lot of attention online and save from repeating a previous post, I have opted to provide a series of short observations on the festival. Oh and did I mention that I attended all four days because where else would I be!

Packed house on Festival Saturday

In no particular order:

  1. Biggest festival yet! Huge crowds over the four days (over 10,000 according to Ruben @TaleofAle). It was packed on the Friday and many had made their way up from the Aviva after the Ireland-Sweden march but Saturday was something else. The crowds simply kept on coming with a queue to get in and an even bigger one at the token stand.  if keeps growing like this, it’ll probably have to move into the main hall next door.
  2. Two collaboration brews can be best described as sweet. The O’Hara’s/JW Sweetman’s version containing honey. There’s a story to be told about it but can be best summed up as there’s a group of people out there nerdier than beer enthusiasts – honey people! Troubled Hooker from guess which two breweries (see my previous post if you can’t for the life of you work out who it is) was a mistake gone well. It was supposed to be a Double IPA but became almost a sweet Belgian Tripel, even sweeter than Kwak.
  3. Dry-hopped Irish reds, what’s the point? The malt sweetness is there for a reason. Leave the hops for the “Irish” pale ales & co.
  4. The Hop Randall festival goes to try the Kinsale Pale Ale with added Simcoe, Citra and Nelson Sauvin. The Hop Randall  has now been introduced by the Bull and Castle and the Bierhaus in Cork . Has it already been condemned to the realm of gimmick?
  5. Franciscan Well wasn’t picketed by members of the craft purist front and the casks ran dry fairly early on. Punters weren’t put off by this big beer-owned concern.
  6. In previous years Dungarvan trialled their seasonal beers for the following year (Comeragh Challenger and Mahon Falls). Cormac brought six variants with him, including a Saison, Amber Ale, Mild, session DIPA, Wit IPA and an IPA. I  still don’t know which or if any are scheduled for release  in 2014.
  7. Every time the show the All-Ireland Hurling Final On festival Sunday, it ends in a draw.
  8. In past years people flocked to the White Gypsy stand to imbibe on the stronger beers available. However, I don’t know what is happening down in Templemore as a string of very fine session beers turned up at this year’s festival.
  9. Did every band at the festival do a cover of The Lumineers’ Ho Hey? Don’t get me started about the Johnny Cash covers!
  10. Two barley wines at the festival and two were duly sampled. I know barley wines are known for their port/sherry like comparisons but I’m not going to go into how one was sweet (Porterhouse) and one was dry (O’Hara’s). That’s just going too far!
  11. Putting the newer breweries in one corner (although Brú was across the way) grouped in one corner was a great way of concentrating interest in them. One thing noticed is that the newer breweries have fantastic branding and T-shorts for sale (in the past this sort of behaviour was confined to Metalman and the Porterhouse).
  12. Beers to look out for include Eight Degrees’ Amber Ella (might give Howling Gale Ale a run for its money in the popularity stakes), Kinsale Pale Ale (a great beer to show to festival novices that Ireland can match Sierra Nevada et al), Mountain Man’s Hairy Goat (nice copper ale for the autumn) and hopefully Five Lamps will release the darker version of their Liberties Ale (they have a lager so why put out a golden ale?).
The fantastic branding from some of the newer breweries at the festival

 

Have a picnic at a beer festival instead

Forget the Electric Picnic, the festival to be at the end of the summer is the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival. Continuing in its early September slot in the RDS for the third year, this edition promises to be bigger and better.


The festival got a bump in attendees in 2012, thanks to the weather and benefitting from the first Leinster home match of the season (supporters could benefit from 50% reduction in admission on presentation of match ticket). Nonetheless the organisers are determined to give it a go. Tis year’s festival is now a four-day affair. Gone are the three-day passes but Beoir members can benefit from discounted entry. There is also greater equilibrium in the beer festival calendar as beer festival took place a couple of weeks before the inaugural festival in 2011 and last year it was the weekend immediately following last year’s one. I wasn’t particularly complaining because needless to say I attended both (gutted to have missed the Secret Beer Garden 2013 in its new May slot).

The festival had a quiet start in 2011 and as all regular festivals needed time to grow in its surroundings. Noticeable improvements in terms of general attendee experience could be seen last year. This includes TVs to watch the important matches of the weekend (i.e. Ireland v Sweden and the All Ireland final) as well as the main stage being in the centre of the room as opposed to be at the end of the hall this first year. However, the key reason for being there is to enjoy the range of beers and ciders on offer and thankfully the opening hours have been revisited (Thursday 5pm-11.30pm, Friday & Saturday 12pm-12.30am, and Sunday 12pm-8pm). The later closing times are fantastic, particularly those who might be combining it with the football match nearby on Friday.

The festival allows attendees to get up close and personal with the breweries themselves. Unlike the in the IFSC, breweries operate stalls offering their wares. There are a number of first time debutants such as Donegal Brewing Co., Kinnegar, Kinsale Craft Brewing, Mountain Man, Five Lamps and newly launched Brú Brewing from Meath. It’s great to see Galway Hooker back at the festival after missing last year’s, bringing with them a range of beers that are nigh on impossible to imbibe outside of city of the tribes. J.W. Sweetman will be there under their new name, ownership and brewing skills. In 2011, my beer of the festival was Barrelhead contract brewed by Fransican Well for the guys behind Sweetman’s today and I can’t wait to try it once more.

Besides the array of fantastic stouts and porters, there will be a number of golden, pale, brown and amber ales. I am particularly looking forward to trying the range from Kinnegar (they were excellent when tried in bottles last June), Mountain Man’s Hairy Goat and Kinsale’s Pale Ale complete with hop randall in tow. Hopheads wont be disappointed this year with the Eight Degrees “hop off” contenders Cyclone and Hurricane putting in appearance, as well as Amber Ella made with the with aussie hop of the same name (used to be called stella but for some reason had to be changed). It will be interesting to get the opportunity to try the Franciscan Well’s IPA as well as Whitewater’s Hoppelhammer IPA because I’ve heard good things about the cask version.

Like all beer festivals, there will be a range of “special” brews. It’s great getting the opportunity to have first tastes of brews that may or not be put into wider production or based on feedback relieved they might be altered in future brews. Dungarvan will be bringing brews that will offer an insight into Cormac’s thinking of forthcoming brews. In 2011, they brought what was to become Comeragh Challenger and last year we got to try Mahon Falls then under thr imaginative name of Rye-PA. Alternatively festival specials might be brewed with unique adjuncts because of either the growing popularity of these beers or simply for the craic. The Metalman crew have done this in the past. This year we’ll see O’Hara’s Curim with peach as well as with mango and honey. Whitewater will be bringing Bee’s Endeavour, an ale with honey and root ginger. Let’s not forget that Trouble Brewing will once more be providing a scaled up version of the brew that scooped overall prize at the 2013 All Ireland Homebrew Competition, an oatmeal stout called Ormeau Dark. There will be also two collaboration brews at the festival the first being Troubled Hooker (can you guess the breweries involved?) the second one will be a Belgian-dubbel style from JW Sweetmans and O’Hara’s. Hopefully White Gypsy will be bring theirs and a side-by-side test could be done. There will be a noticeable increase in abv of the beers and offer and the accolade for the strongest on offer goes to the Porterhouse’s Louder. O’Hara’s will also have a barley wine. That’s two Irish barley wines at the same festival. Two! There were none last year.

For lager drinkers (much maligned by beer aficionados), there will be more choice over previous years. No longer will Dingle’s Tom Creans, Carrig lager and a couple from the Porterhouse. Brú will bring both a German-style pilsner and a Dortmunder, and people can get their malty lager fix from the Five Lamps. O’Hara’s bar will feature their Helles interpretation. The festival will show that lagers are not solely pale yellow thirst-quenchers and there is quite some depth to the cold fermented brews. Look to the amber lagers on offer from Whitewater’s Bullrush (no Belfast Lager this year) and the excellent sorachi ace-infused Sahara from Metalman. For those attending the festival with lager drinkers, why not introduce them to the range of Kölsch and other golden ales as a transition beer?

Finally, a lot of discussion has taken place online about the presence of Franciscan Well at the “craft” beer festival following their takeover by Molson Coors. For example, its beers have already been removed from the Beoir Finder app. This is an issue that will run and run until there’s an agreed definition for “craft” beer in an Irish context (or do we need one?). Alex aka @TheBeermack has a good overview of the debate on the presence of the Cork brewery at the festival and suggests that the festival might look at future years branding itself as “The Great Irish Beer and Cider Festival”. This would be inline with both its counterparts in the UK and the US where independent and large breweries participate and leave it to attendees to make up their minds. Although in the case of the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) with its focus on real ale, you wont see the likes of Brewdog, Kernel or Magic Rock participating. People will “nit-pick” until this issue is sorted but others may equally take umbrage over the presence of international offerings from Kentucky and Sierra Nevada at an “Irish” festival. There were rumblings at the GBBF over the increased presence of international beers and that they were taking attention away from the indigenous offerings. I certainly think it would be great to have additional beers from overseas at the festival because it could help boost international visitors to the festival (CAMRA and other EBCU-affiliated members get discounted admissions). Perhaps one year we may see Irish brewer’s Fergus Fitzgerald (Adnams) and Evin O’Riordain (Kernel) bring their brews to the festival. Sadly it was a missed opportunity this year during “The Gathering”.

All in all it promises to be a fantastic weekend in store for attendees. Apparently there will be ciders and whiskey as well but they’re really not my thing (at the moment) and perhaps an education will be required so if any one out there has the patience to teach me about them, get in touch.