Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Beer: Two-by-Two New Brews - My Views

In case you think that I work in the PR department of O'Hara's - with two posts about them one after another - I can assure you that I don't! I just needed to get my detour to Brewery Corner out of the Kilkenny Craft Beer Festival post, which follows soon.

I found out a few weeks back that O'Hara's - Carlow Brewing - had brewed a collaboration with Starr Hill Brewery from Crozet, Virginia in the US but only discovered the day before travelling to the Kilkenny Craft Beer Festival that it was going to be on tap in Brewery Corner - O'Hara's own bar in Kilkenny - the same day. So, ever the beer ticker, I took a break from the festival and toddled off towards Parliament Street.

Arriving at the bar I spotted the sign on the pump - a hastily used bottle label - for the new beer and greedily decided to go for a pint, although my normal portion size on a day out like this is a half pint. Less quantity equals more variety in my book, er, blog.

After being informed that I was the first member of the public to try the beer, I sat there for a moment admiring my pint, and with a rare sense of superiority at having one over on the rest of the Bloggers, Tweeters and Beer Tickers in the country.
Was this how they felt all of the time?

So, Foreign Affair is a Red IPA (Which might make it a IOA - India Orange Ale?) made with the Falconer's Flight blend of hops from the US and I can only presume Irish malt. Whatever the ingredients, the beer tasted to me of ripe peaches with a splash of lemon, puréed and then sucked through a gingernut biscuit. It was super fresh of course, having only come out of the conditioning tank the previous day. (I think!) That combined with a nice juicy, full body made me doubt that it was only 4.8% abv. This is a beer I could happily drink a few pints of on a Saturday afternoon...

The pub was a little quiet but there was a steady trickle coming and going from the bar, especially for a Saturday afternoon. There were two groups of Americans in and a few locals came and went too. The friendly staff were kept busy; tasting trays and pints of their own cider seemed to be going well. Good music was seeping from the speakers and I felt relaxed, and in need of another drink.

I was tempted to get a pint of Leann Follain but was persuaded - quite easily strangely enough - to have another new(ish) stout instead; the second-coming of Lublin to Dublin, which I hope will continue on to become a series, made in collaboration with Browar Pinta from Poland. Last year's version was a gorgeous oatmeal version of the style and this year's is a 6% abv milk stout, and a 'robust' milk stout at that, or so the label said!

It was little cold to start, as personally I like my stouts off a cool shelf more so than out of a fridge, but even at that I was hit with a smooth and creamy, quality milk chocolate. As the glass warmed up the chocolate was even more evident, as was a bitter very slight black cardamom smoky/spicy aftertaste that stopped the beer from being sickly sweet. It was as gorgeous as last years stout but maybe more sublime.

I was two for two here, and sitting at home now typing this I almost feel embarrassed at finding two more O'Hara's beers to rave about...


But back at Brewery Corner time was ticking on and so I finished up and headed back to the festival - my next post.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Beer: Carlow Brewing - An Ace up Their Sleeve

I have to admit that my palate is not fine tuned enough to pick out most hop varieties when I taste a beer but one exception to that is Sorachi Ace. I can remember drinking Thornbridge Raven in The Salthouse in Galway a couple of years back and picking it out of that beer, to the amazement of myself and my drinking buddy. It's a pretty unique hop and I would guess that it's one you either love or hate on its own - a bit like Marmite.

I've come across it a few times now. My first taste was when it was part of the Brew Dog IPA is Dead series a few years back - I remember reading the notes on it that mentioned bubblegum and thinking how accurate a description it was, but tropical fruit flavour gum mind you. My next taste was of Mikkeller's single hop version and my own notes read 'Excellent. Butter and grapefruit, smooth. 'WOW' beer time!' Next came Brooklyn's, 'Creamy tropical fruit flavour. Sweet-sourish and easy to drink.' I came across it again in Copenhagen brewed by Raasted/Beer Here under a name I can't print here, as I don't want to be picked up by the wrong search engines! My notes for that read, 'Creamy lychee juice. Barley sugar too. Beautiful Beer.' (As you can see, brevity is my friend when taking beer notes although I have improved - slightly.)

So with all this background research done, when I heard that my local brewery O'Hara's (Carlow Brewing)  had done an IPA with Sorachi Ace as part of a Hop Adventure series I was dying to try it. An opportunity came pretty quickly as Tully's Bar in my adopted town of Carlow had organised a beer festival as part of the local arts festival, and O'Hara's was to feature prominently, along with White Gypsy and 12 Acres - 2 more of my favourite brewers - who regularly feature in the Tully's line up.

As fortune, fate or persistent Twitter pestering would have it the Sorachi Ace was on tap, along with their stout, dunkleweizen, saison, cider and pale ale. I worked my way up to it via the Dunkleweizen - almost stout-like with a hint of clove-  and the Saison - sour, bitter and cleansing.

When I finally got to the Sorachi Ace IPA, I sat back, took my time and studied it. It was very creamy looking and certainly appealing. I took a taste and looked through my notes from my previous Sorachi escapades. Even though not all of them were IPAs the flavour profile still made sense. I got the creaminess. I got the tropical bubblegum. I got the lychees. I got a bare hint of barley sugar. Most of all I got the wow!

OK, perhaps my palate was being guided by my previous encounters but either way this was a lovely beer - my kind of beer. O'Hara's have a great talent for making extremely drinkable beers. Not extreme beers, not crazy beers, not dump-the-whole-bag-of-hops-in beers. But solid, well made, balanced beers and, most importantly, saleable beers.

You might think I'm biased as I live in Carlow but I'm a Laois man living in Carlow. And if I'm being completely honest I think that 12 Acres Pale Ale with its lemon puff biscuit flavour edges out O'Hara's Irish Pale Ale for my palate. (Now that could be the Laois man in me talking!)

Anyway, back to the festival and the Sorachi IPA...

The weather wasn't kind to the festival but I think it went OK. I hope so, as I want it to be bigger and better next year. The Sorachi Ace was a bold move by O'Hara's and I admire them for that too. It would certainly be a go-to summer beer for me and I look forward to trying it in bottle format.

I'm looking forward to the next Adventure too!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Beer: Dark States - Some US Stouts

The US has has always been a bit of a draw for me beer-wise. It probably comes from listening to too many Brewing Network podcasts and reading online articles about US breweries and beers that basically says, 'Jaysus, we're great!' - but in the local words and dialect of whatever US region the writer is based obviously!

A good few of the better US breweries have made it to these shores but there are a fair few on my radar that haven't too. Names like Hoppin' Frog, Crooked Stave, The Bruery, 3 Floyds and many others don't appear anywhere near me anyway. Even when so-called better beers do get here they can be a little long on the water and might be missing that zing of freshness that makes them great. I remember having a Bear Republic Racer 5 a year or more back that was fresh off whatever mode of transport got it here, and it was probably the best IPA I have ever had - mostly due to its freshness I have always presumed. (Recently the Irish brewers have cranked things up a notch so sourcing decent IPAs is less of an issue here, although they do differ from what I've tasted from the states. 8 Degrees' Full Irish and Brehon's Stony Grey are just two that spring to mind.)

Anyhow, to get back on track, a few weeks ago I had the chance to get my hands on a some beers that are hard to source here. I picked up the odd Belgian and a few others too, including a selection of beers - mostly dark ones that I thought might travel better- from the US. I was still a little concerned about the freshness, as they hadn't come direct from there to here, but nevertheless I jumped at the chance to acquire them and soon they were secreted in my stash under the stairs, the coolest place in my house. (Memo to self - buy a freakin' beer fridge!)

Deschutes Obsidian Stout from Oregon tasted of sweet, smooth, unburnt coffee with a lightly-perfumed backwash and a great, full body, with a dose treacle and honey. Added to that was a hint of Bourbon biscuits I often get with good stout. Drinking it I was strangely obsessed at how it would taste on nitro - although I'm not sure if it is ever served this way. It was an excellent beer, even though the best before was 3/2/2015. I'd imagine that served fresh it would be immaculate.

Dark Horse Too Cream Stout from Michigan had a dark head and tasted of sweet liquorice with a semi-dense and slightly-syrupy texture, but was perhaps a little light given the flavours. I got a sourness there too, and a pleasant chilli-like burn that must have come from somewhere, but I can't figure out how! This one came across as a rich, slightly boozy drinking chocolate that wasn't quite tip-top. Freshness an issue again I think, although there was no date on the bottle.

Still Water Folklore Stout from Maryland was my last to taste. The carbonation was a lot lower in this, again maybe down to age, and the head disappeared quite quickly. Bitter cola cubes assaulted me here, with even a light, fizzy, tingly sweetness. There was a tiny bit of smoke there too. Once it warmed up I got more of a rich cocoa flavour and a hint of scotch whiskey, with some fruity esters that reminded me of sultanas maybe. Like the previous one it seemed just a little light in body for me, although it was more than pleasant. The bottling date was the end of March last year, a factor no doubt.

So what's the moral of the story? I'm not sure if there is one. as I enjoyed all the beers and that's what it's all about surely. Admittedly I'd like to try all of them fresh and maybe on draught (or draft) but that won't happen soon.

As a beer ticker I'll always be drawn by the elusive and hard to source but it's fair to say that many of the current batch of Irish stouts would stack up well with these highly rated US beers and perhaps like IPAs, freshness holds the key too. Look at Porterhouse Wrasslers, O'Hara's Leann Follain and Galway Bay Buried at Sea for example, and a few others too.

But I'll keep trying to get a few different beers every now and again. After all, it's only fair that something gets to travel on this blog!

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Travel: Brussels - Art Nouveau Walking Tour and the Victor Horta Museum

Art Nouveau
noun, art nou·veau  \ˌär(t)-nü-ˈvō\
: a style of art, design, and architecture that uses curving lines and shapes that look like leaves and flowers

(With my travel plans still curtailed, a few comments I saw recently on Twitter made me dig out this unpublished piece from a couple of years back. It is an excerpt from a longer work about a trip to Brussels.)

I awoke early to a gorgeous morning. The sun was out and I had a spring in my step as I was heading to yet another museum, and a self-guided Art Nouveau architectural tour of sorts. My travelling companions were having a lie-in, having over indulged the night before so this was a solo tour, following a walking guide-map I had picked up in the tourist office

Art Nouveau developed in the 1880s and 1890s, possibly from the Arts and Crafts movement in England and swept through many cities in Europe and North America in the 1900s and 1910s, going by different names in different countries - Jugendstil and Liberty style to name but two. Brussels was one of the main cities where it took hold, thanks in no small part to the work of Victor Horta, Paul Hamesse and Paul Hanker, who along with others left their stamp on the city.
An overly simplified description would be to say that the style was influenced heavily by organic, florid, flowing forms and by the use of new materials - by-products of the industrial revolution such as cast iron for example - but hand crafted instead of mass produced. It is typified in art by the works of Mucha and Klimt, and others such as Mackintosh, Gaudi, Liberty, Lalique and Tiffany are also synonymous with the movement.

I set off through the quiet Sunday morning streets of the city. Very few people were around apart from the street cleaners, and the odd person walking their dog while leaving a trail of turds. (The dogs I mean...) I passed the obscenely enormous Palace of Justice, crossed the busy ring road and soon I was in the St Giles area of the city, an open air Art Nouveau building museum. I spent a pleasant morning admiring the beautiful façades of the houses that lined the streets. Appreciating the flowing metal and stonework, and studying the intricate woodwork of the doors and windows. At any minute I expected a police car to roll up and to be taken away, accused of being a peeping tom as I stood staring in awe at the design and workmanship of the buildings. It was, for me, a fantastic way to spend a Sunday morning in a strange city with no other souls around.
  The city was starting to wake up from its Sunday morning slumber as I made my way over to Rue Américaine and the Victor Horta Museum, my ultimate destination. Cafés were opening up and people were coming and going with the morning papers or buying pastries for breakfast. The streets were a mixture of old and new buildings and I still caught glimpses of the city's Art Nouveau past squashed between ugly 1960s or 1970s structures. The city was relatively clean, only marred by the dog turds and the 'tagging' graffiti that seemed to be in every town and city in Europe now. I'm all for decent urban 'wall art', especially on ugly concrete slabs but this is meaningless vandalism to my mind.
I arrived too early at the museum and after pausing briefly to admire the two buildings that it is composed of, I headed further along the street for a stroll in the sunshine, eventually reaching a nice circular park, Leemansplace. It was a pretty spot to sit and have a rest only marred by the now ubiquitous, aforementioned piles of dog faeces and some discarded needles under the benches, both now a part of the sights and experiences of parks all over the world. Worried about the chances of catching something or of being accused of now looking like a heroin-junkie-peeping-tom, I decided to wander back up the street to a small café that was just opening up as I went past it towards the park. I resisted the urge to have a beer and instead had a coffee and a glass of water, as I waited impatiently for the museum to open up.
Eventually it did and I joined the small queue waiting to enter. It's a smallish building which wasn't designed for large groups of people so only a certain number can be inside at any one time, so as some leave, more are let in. While waiting outside I admired the façade's design again and the attention to detail, which Horta applied to all his work.

Victor Horta was born in Ghent, Belgium in 1861 but studied and learned his trade in Brussels. He made a name for himself when he designed a couple of hotels in the city and his career snowballed from there. He was soon being commissioned to design buildings throughout Brussels. He built his house and studio on the site where I now stood between 1898 and 1901. After an enforced stint lecturing in America because of the WWI he returned to Brussels and sold the house and the attached studio. The house was bought by the local community in 1969 and opened as a museum two years later. The attached studio was purchased in 1971 and restoration has been ongoing since. Horta died in 1947 and many of his buildings were demolished in acts of what can only be classed as insanity in the 1950s and 1960s. (How this could be let happen is a mystery to me, I can only presume that monkeys were among the town planners back then. Actually, that's probably a little unfair to the monkeys.)
I was finally let inside the door and had to wait in a small hallway, for some unknown reason, for five or so minutes before being let into the house proper. Perhaps it was an airlock where I was slowly and secretly infused with Art Nouveau appreciation gas. Whatever the reason, when I reached the main hall I was blown away. A beautiful staircase winds its way up through the house, culminating in a curvilinear glass ceiling that floods light back down through the stairwell. The rooms leading from the stairwell on all levels were exquisitely designed with incredible attention to detail. Even the door handles were decorative works of art. It was staggering how the functional aspects of home living were cunningly concealed. (Like an urinal which swings out from a hidden compartment beside the bed, a feature that would be of utmost use in my own home.) I walked up and down the stairs with my mouth open, seeing things I had missed on my first trip into a room or looking at a stained glass window, beautifully moulded door or mosaic section of flooring from a different angle. Sometimes I just stood and tried to absorb and see the tiny details that are the hallmark of a perfectionist. Time appeared to slow down... and almost stop, but looking at my watch I realised I had been in here for ages.
The house was starting to fill up now so after one last look around and a visit to the gift shop I headed out. With a smile on my face, and whistling to myself I headed back towards the city centre. On the way I visited another Art Nouveau building, the beautiful, if slightly less ornate, Hôtel Hannon on Rue de la Jonction, designed by the architect Jules Brunfaut and built in 1903. The sad thing was, I was the only one there. Nobody else came to admire the mosaics, mural and ironwork, or the extremely elegant façade. I wandered around the building with only some photographs, a gallery, and the curator for company.

I met up with the others in a little park in the Sablon district called La Place du Petit Sablon. It was a very pretty little place full of statues, roses and lavender with a nice fountain as a centrepiece. Directly across from it stands the 15th century church of Notre Dame du Sablon, yet another example of Gothic architecture of which Brussels has some superb examples. The park was quite busy with locals enjoying a cooling break from what was now becoming a heavy, clammy day, and tourists like us admiring the statues, fountain and the view across to the church.

We decided to go for a beer, as it was now early afternoon, calling in to the church firstly. Unfortunately some restoration and renovation was taking place and most of the church was sealed off so we traipsed back out and around the back to an antique market. We had just surmised that anything worth buying was outside our budgetary constraints when we noticed the sun had disappeared and it was getting overcast. Suddenly the heavens opened and we ran to the safety of the nearest bar, shaking ourselves dry as we entered.

We immediately sensed that this was not our kind of place. Something about the well dressed clientèle, the silver cutlery and the look of disdain on the waiter's face as we stood shaking like dogs at his desk were a give away I think. Not to mention the fact that we now realised it was a restaurant and not a bar.
'Ah, a table for four?' inquired Pete. Not wanting to lose face by retreating back to the rain.
The waiter looked us up and down from his pulpit, his hands moving to a shelf underneath. I sensed his finger hovering over the button that called security or opened a trap door under our feet but he must have had a change of heart as next thing he ushered us towards a seat across from the window. If I had been him I would have hidden us down the back of the establishment but perhaps he felt we might be a source of amusement for the other customers.
'Here are the lunch menus, gentlemen,' he said, handing them to us.
'Actually we just wanted to get a few beers,' said Pete.
This news was received with a withering look of disdain and in fairness he took our order and came back with our selection promptly but by then we had suddenly been distracted by a plaque that Pete had spotted on the wall.
         It read:

(Mr Bill Clinton
President of the United States of America
sat at this table on 9th January 1994
He drank coffee and chatted an hour
with all present.)

Imagine if it hadn't started to rain, and we hadn't ran in here, and the waiter had turned us away? We would never have sat at the same table as Slick Willy - for good or for bad.
As we drank our beers, which I never took note of, we started to wonder why the waiter had put us there? I'm not sure what it says about us - or Bill - but at least we can say our butts shared a seat with an American president. We thought and talked about this as we drank our beer, then paid our enormous bill - obviously there was a surcharge for that table - and vowed to come back for a meal sometime we could afford it.
     Which wouldn't be any time soon...