Monday, 30 June 2014

Local beer for local people

(Note: this has been edited a bit as I wasn't happy with it - still not really sure it conveys what I'm trying to say but hopefully its closer!)

There's been a bit of discussion recently (on twitter and on Belfast Beer Blogabout the local brewing scene. In one of my early posts I highlighted how I believed the beer scene in NI had come on quite dramatically. Since then we have had the addition of even more local brewers (FarmageddonPokertree, Fulcrum, Sheelin, Cloughmore, etc.) and there even more to come soon (see here and here!). Added to the existing Whitewater, Hilden and McGrath’s it's clear the scene is expanding - though this interesting post from  Belfast Barman(ager) highlights the issue of actually getting people to drink the stuff! 

Though, even given these developments, there's been a bit of discussion about the quality of what’s been brewed locally. In its defence, there only been one beer produced locally that I have sinked (coming soon...), and almost all of the production is superior to the mega-brewers that dominate the pubs and off-licenses. However, to me some (but by no means all) of the discussion on quality has centred around - for want of a better term - how "adventurous"/exciting the beer is. Though I do think there are genuine concerns about how good some of the production is. (However, quality - like flavour - is a bit subjective, what I like, what I think is quality/flavoursome, may be different to your opinion and that makes this a tricky discussion.)   

With this in mind I looked forward to trying two new beers on the local scene - special "geeky" beers from Farmageddon at that:

 The first one I tried was the Cascadian Dark Ale (Style: Black IPA. ABV: 6.7%. FromGrange Wines). Poured deep ruby red / brown with a tan head that reall din't hang about. Aroma of burnt toast, pithy citrus and treacle sweetness. Taste-wise there's some molasses, toasted malt, brown sugar, orange, and grapefruit. Mid to full bodied, oily, and a decent bitter finish. This was really nice, a bit like their India Export Porter and then some. As good as anything I've had locally. Score: 7.5

Next up was Tomahawk S.M.A.S.H. (Style: IPA. ABV: 6.7%. FromGrange Wines). Poured a dark/burnt orange with a fine off-white head. Pithy orange aroma but that gives
way to something chemical. Again the taste starts off pithy and bitter, but if gives way to iodine, TCP, and something very astringent. Mid-bodied and sticky. While the antiseptic quality was rather muted to begin, as the beer warmed up it overwhelmed everything else to the point of being undrinkable. I assume they were aiming for something like North Peak's Diabolical IPA, it didn't work out though. It's fair to point out some people have loved this beer (according to twitter/untapped anyway). Maybe it's just me or maybe there some consistency issues. Score: 2 (mostly for the effort).

So in summary, one of these has probably overtaken Whitewater's HoppleHammer as my favourite local beer, the other was - quite frankly - a mess (if it was meant to taste like that at least). I applaud the effort if not the execution of the SMASH (though conceptually I'm not a huge fan of the single hop same malt base type beers - it kinda works for the likes of brewdog in the IPA is Dead series as an experiment or an educational thing, but frankly I couldn't care less if the beer is brewed with one particular hop or not, I just want it to taste good).

Certainly these beers seem a bit more in the "adventurous" category, but all of the local producers get some sympathy from me on the "not adventurous enough" charge anyway. Let me explain why... I drink a fair bit of beer, I'm the person the local brewers should be be aiming their adventurous beer aimed at, and no doubt I'd drink it. However, it's pretty rare I'd drink the same beer regularly - even the cracking ones and sometimes especially the out there ones - I mean how many "Grand Cru Russian Imperial Stout brewed with Snowberry Honey, Anardana Seeds and finished in Appleton Estate Rum barrels" (courtesy of The Craft Beer Trends Predictor) can you drink...

The beers I do drink regularly tend to be solid, balanced, quaffable, easy, sensibly ABV's, and competitively priced.  Judging my by untapped timeline other people are similar (unless they aren't checking in their regular brews of course). For normal beer drinkers I'd guess this also applies - my non-geeky friend's want refreshing and session-able - they are open to trying something different, but not that different (and they won't pay big dough for something they're not sure they'll enjoy). Therefore, if I was a producer (and I don't even home brew by the way so what do I know) I'd look to build my base market and market share by producing quality beer capable of appealing to a fair chunk of the market before making a beer that may get critical recognition but is actually drunk by a tiny proportion. Then I'd work my way up to something a bit more fun!

Yes, I do think if someone brews a cracking "adventurous" beer it'll sell and sell well - but I'm guessing brewing such a beer ain't as easy as it is typing about one! 

This doesn't excuse the local guys/girls from trying new things and it doesn't excuse poor quality, I don't tend to drink anything produced in NI on a regular basis so I think there is some work to do in upping the general quality and flavour. What's being produced in the south should highlight the way - I'd love an NI version of Amber Ella or Rascals Ginger Porter, or (if we are really lucky) Of Foam and Fury but I don't think anyone is at that level yet (though I have high hopes for Boundary Brewing and Belfast Brewing). Dull beer and bad beer won't grow the scene and no-one is going to pay more money for something no better than the big guys make at 3/4 of the price. The guys/girls locally brewing have the challenge of growing the market (and their market share) at the same time as expanding the local taste buds. I think it'll take time but it is getting there, and if you're a local brewer reading this don't be afraid to test the market every now and then - you might be surprised!  

Right, I've prattled on long enough... I'm off the tick another beer.


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