Friday, 4 September 2015

Beer: Irish Craft Beer Festival RDS 2015 - 30 beers, 5 Hours & 4 Glasses

Beer festivals seem to be coming a bit of a 'thing' for me. I look for them and forward to them in equal measure and count down the time leading up to one. I can't get to all of them, as time, money, family life and public transport seem to get in the way of my plans with increasing frequency.

But there are a few I try not to miss, and the Irish Craft Beer Festival is one of them.

It's not just the festival itself but also the trip there, the company and the general feeling of camaraderie that abounds at these events that appeals to me. This year I had managed to rope in three traveling beerites, so along with the almost ever-present Nige I had two other companions, which suited the beer ticker in me as if they were amenable to sharing, it meant that I would be able to quadruple my tastings.

We met at our usual starting point at the local train station and after a small flirtation with a mini-swarm of love-struck wasps and some well deserved abuse of Nige for, well, being Nige we were on our way. The train was relatively quiet considering there was a protest and a rugby match on - they weren't connected to each other by the way - and we arrived in Dublin city centre early enough to grab breakfast and for me to make my usual pilgrimage to Chapters bookshop. Breakfast this time was taken in Anne's on Mary Street, as two of our company wanted a 'proper breakfast'. So I had to forgo my usual coffee and toasted mozzarella ciabatta in favour of a 6 piece breakfast that would set me up for the day.

We decided to meet under The Spire and to catch the bus to the RDS from the top of O'Connell Street, so after dodging the usual fruit and fag sellers on Moore Street on my way back from a rushed trip to the bookshop, I was the first to arrive at our meeting point. I took in the sights and sounds of the city, admiring the pallette of colours that Dublin displayed regardless of the weather. Soon the others joined me. Unsurprisingly Nige was last to arrive.

We waited patiently for our bus and when it arrived we held back as a little old lady hobbled towards the steps. Well we didn't all hold back, Nige barged in ahead of her, oblivious to the world around him or distracted  by the thoughts of the festival. Who knows?

The bus journey was slow and uneventful until we reached Nassau Street and Judge Dredd got on and sat opposite me. Comic Con was also on in the RDS - in another hall - and as I looked closely around I noticed a few other attendees such as a baby dressed as Superman and few other characters I didn't recognise. Judge Dredd had a DIY outfit that wasn't too bad to be fair but he was upset that the holster for his Lawgiver had got ripped on a previous journey. He spent a worrying amount of time talking to a small Judge Dredd figure that seemed to be his mascot, promising it that he would get it a Lawmaster at the exhibition. I felt a twinge of envy as I thought how self conscious I can be but how uncaring this guy was about what people thought of him or how he looked. When we stopped at the RDS I wished him luck with his event and we headed our separate ways, as the beer festival was around the corner in the Industries Hall.

We were very early so there was no queue or hassle getting in, we picked up our glasses - 3 of us upgrading to the fancy stemmed ones, while Nige - naturally - refused to pay the extra 2 euro for the fancier glass. (It was the next day that I realised that the stemmed glasses were also bigger and that many stands were filling them to the top! This might have explained my fuzziness later in the evening, and for the next day or so...)

The layout this time looked better than last year's, with drink stands up the middle now as well as around the periphery. There was still a good deal of space for punters but perhaps a lack of tables? An area for live music was marked out in the centre of the hall and food stalls were set up out the back around a nice marquee with very cool recycled pallet furniture placed underneath for seating. The food offering had increased from last year too, with something to suit everyone I thought.

Some of the stands were still not manned so we did a circuit of the hall to get our bearings - and were struck immediately by the thought that we would not get to try everything, but with 4 of us at least we'd make a good stab at it!

My first stop was at White Gypsy to try the Cream Ale brewed by the owner Cuilan's son Dylan. It was served on nitro, which of course added to the creamy taste that reminded me of gooseberries and custard. A lovely clean beer and a good start to the festival. Proof that the brewery is in good hands for the next generation at least.

From The White Hag, the stars of last years festival, I tasted Meabh Rua Irish Bog Ale, which tasted of bacon and popcorn and was excellent, plus Beann Gulban Irish Heather Sour Ale - strong for a sour at 7.5% abv I felt but not noticeable on the tongue. The sourness came across a little too diluted for me but it was a fine beer. Their White Sow Oatmeal Chocolate Stout that was pushed through a rocket of fresh coffee beans was a tongue tingler of flavours with the coffee mingling with the dark chocolate flavour and backed up by a dose of full bodied goodness - a great breakfast stout if there ever was one!

Next I had Hillbilly Heaven from Mountain Man Brewing, based on their Sneaky Owl but aged on American bourbon oak. This had a light body and tasted of how old bookshops smell, that's not a negative but I did feel it was a little short in body for me, which was strange as I like Sneaky owl in bottle. Later I sampled their Vincent van Coff based on the same beer but with coffee and vanilla, I could get the coffee in this one and perhaps the touch of vanilla. I preferred it to Hillbilly Heaven even if it was subtle and, well, sneaky.

I tried Wicklow Brewery's St.Kevin's Red, which was a great take on a red ale. As in Kilkenny when I tasted their Weiss, I got the faintest taste of bacon from it along with bags of malt. It was very tasty indeed and I can only presume that the bacon-like taste if from the yeast strain. Perhaps German given the brewer's nationality?

Lagunitas Chicago-Style Fusion XXX Saison was an interesting one that I only sampled but although it was Saison like it seemed sweeter somehow, like honeysuckle scent with an edge of sourness. I meant to revisit it but sadly didn't get back to it.

Next I headed to Dungarvan Brewing Company as they had a two-part stout pouring from cask that echoed back in time to how stout was served before kegs and nitro arrived on the scene. I also needed to reaffirm that my palate was right when I had been given an off pint of cask Black Rock in Waterford the previous week that tasted slightly of cider vinegar. I didn't blame Dungarvan for this though, and wanted to get to their stand to try Black Rock as it should be served. The two-part pour stout was excellent, one cask was fresh and the other aged 9 months. It tasted of mild cocoa and had a lovely chalk-like finish that I really enjoyed. Also from Dungarvan I tasted Black Rock with added raspberries, which was also excellent with a liquorice flavour and chocolate mixing with the raspberries on my tongue. Their Seaweed Saison was great too, a savoury, almost salty beer that made me hungry for both more of the beer and food too. The Imperial Red was butterscotch in a good way with a hit of alcohol but was perhaps a tad harsh for me. Later I had the Strong Ale that lived up to its name! It was viscous with whiskey, molasses and treacle - and I loved it. A sipper I didn't sip!

Radikale's Curious Radical Brew was one I had earmarked as a must try when I saw what would be at the festival. It's a beer made with gin botanicals and not a hop in sight! It was gorgeously dry with cardamom and a backwash of peppery heat. More flavours appeared, lingered and faded on my tongue - this was an ongoing taste experience. An excellent beer again from Alain.

From Carlow Brewing (O'Hara's) I sampled the Barrel Aged Leann Follain on cask, which seemed to have more body and flavour than the bottled version I had sampled previously. This version was really good and I forgot to ask if it was a new reincarnation of the bottled version or whether it was just sitting around longer. Falling Apple Dry-Hopped Cider was truly bizarre, with a nice cheese rind quality maybe ... It was certainly hard to place but I did like it and it cleansed my palate and made me think of food again.

Out in the food marquee I headed to Jane Russell's stand to try the Merguez lamb sausage, while the others headed to a hotdog stand apart from Nige who bent the ear of a friend he had spotted, although I'm not convinced she wanted her ear twisted by him at this point of the day. My cuminated sausage was fantastic, served in a bun with just a little dressing. It, combined with the fresh air, restored my flagging palate and tired legs and I was ready to go again.

Rye River Brewing had promised a few specials so it would have been a bit rude not to try them. They had been getting a bit of stick because of their McGargles range, most of it unjust in my opinion, and I think they were keen to show everyone what they could do. They had done something similar at the Alltech Beer Festival earlier in the year.

Anyhow, their Keeping Red was excellent with loads of vanilla flavour, good cola and loads of body ... and maybe a little soul too. Francis McGargle’s Big Bangin IPA - to give it its full titlea new addition to the McGargles range, was certainly a great beer but I think I might be going off big boozy IPAs with their sickly sweet and sour barley sugar taste. The Watermelon Wheat was really good with loads of body and would be great with a barbecue on a hot summers day. Later I snuck back for a glass of the Azacca hopped pale ale, another lovely refreshing beer with a flavour that reminded me of Sorachi Ace.

At this point - feeling sociable, which is unusual for me - I left the others and went scouting for a few souls I knew from Twitter, or at least those whose faces I knew. I found a couple but also missed some notable figures. Who know? They could have been avoiding me!

I returned to my crew and we munched on the free crisps given out by Keoghs as we decided what to try next as time was running out and our train back to Carlow would not wait for four boozy guys who didn't understand the words 'Stop Drinking!'

I wanted to try Yellow Belly beers but as I was heading down to Lambert's in Wexford the following week I took a chance that they'd have something good on their so avoided their stand heading to Blacks of Kinsale instead.

Blacks have yet to let me down by producing a beer I don't like and their Sour Brown Ale didn't disappoint. Although I would have prefered it a little sourer, it had a nice bourbon cream biscuit flavour that worked well with its tartness. Strangely, I always get a wave of arrogance washing over me when I visit their stands and I'm never sure where it emanates from, perhaps it was wafting from the beer itself, with good reason! Sticking with browns I sampled Jester their Imperial one next which had a great spicy flavour with a cheeserind aftertaste and a good hoppy/alcohol burn. I hope they bottle this one!

On we went again and this time I hit the Northbound Brewery stand, as they had an Sticke Alt beer on tap. I have a particular fondness for this style since visiting Düsseldorf a few years back and was dying to try it. Before that I got a sample of their Kölsch, which was super fresh tasting with loads of biscuity malt. The Sticke Alt was excellent, tasting of biscuity cola with spice - perhaps cardamom - too. I brought back memories of Düsseldorf and the great trip we had made to the city one Christmas.

It was time for more food so I nipped out for a box of chips from a fish and chips place that I think promised seaweed salted seasoning but I might be wrong on that description as my notes and memory failed me here. I grabbed four forks and napkins and plonked them down in front of my ravenous mini-hoard, who greedily devoured the whole lot.

It was time for the last few beers so we split up. I headed to Rascals Brewing to try their Chardonnay Saison, which had been recommended by one of the Twitteratti. This certainly had a barrely quality (if that's a word) and was dry and tartish. The others hit Killarney Brewing and I got to try their pale ale and IPA, or so I was told ... Both tasted similar to me so I think they might have both been the IPA, with loads of red lemonade, lemon and grapefruit. They were 'both' excellent!

Second to last was O Brother Brutus DIPA, a big beer at 9.1% and showing every point of it, all barley sugar, blue cheese and citrus ...  and was a very good beer. Truth be known it was a bit OTT for me, which goes to prove I'm not the hop head I once was or that perhaps I was beered out at this stage. Last beer here was 8 Degrees Millennium - another huge beer at 10% but subtle in a way, with sugary sweetness, smoke and lingering alcohol burn. A great beer again!

We were failing fast at this stage so after 5 and a bit hours we left the festival and immediately and collectively decided that a shared taxi was in order. We hopped into a free one and headed back to the train station, giving the poor driver just a small amount of abuse on the journey there. We were at the station a little early so went for another beer in the bar. I had a Hop House 13. I couldn't taste it - and I'm not sure if that was down to my taste buds or the beer itself.

So after grabbing my usual coffee and free chocolate from Butlers we headed to the train and our journey home. A rainbow appeared on the way home, which suited our happy mood, and we then proceeded to annoy the people in our carriage by talking too loud and being 'those guys!'

The greed of having to try as many beers as possible had made me drink too much. Well that combined with me not checking the size of beers I was drinking, which knocked my internal alcohol measurement system off kilter.

Looking back now it's clear that craft beer - for want of better words - in Ireland is in great hands and great shape. Diversity, experimentation and enthusiasm stood out at this festival more than any other I'd been too and it bodes well for future ones!

My favourite beers? That's a tricky one but I think Radikale's Curious Radical Brew, Rye River's Keeping Red and Northbound's Sticke Alt stood out for me for various reasons amongst a few other crackers.

Roll on next year!

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