The Porterhouse Michael Jackson Award for Best Irish Beer

On Thursday the 26th of March I set out to The Porterhouse on Parliament Street in Temple Bar to judge the Michael Jackson award for Irish Beer. This a long article so sit down ideally with a glass of some Irish craft beer as an accompaniment.

For all those who are wondering what the one time prince of pop has to do with beer I better explain who this Michael Jackson was. Famously he was known as the beer hunter and one of the greatest beer writers in the world. He was a pioneer in raising the profile and popularity of beer. He's known for great books such as Great Beers Of Belgium and Ultimate Beer. He died in 2007 and every year beer lovers will raise a glass to toast his memory. Every beer enthusiast has at least one of his books on their shelves. A long time fan of the Porterhouse beers he used to judge the independent Irish beer of the year award. So this year when the competition started again owners of the Porterhouse and friends of Michael Jackson, Oliver Hughes and Liam LaHarte, dedicated the independent Irish beer award to his memory.

Through my involvement with Irish Craft Brewer and writing this blog I was asked to be one of the judges for this years Michael Jackson award. My fellow judges were Tom Doorley, renowned food and wine critic who doesn't discriminate against beer. Tony Brookes manager of The Head Of Steam, a series of five real ale pubs in the UK and importer of Irish craft beer. Séan Billings, home brewer extraordinaire and founder of Irish Craft Brewer. Good company to be in.

At the press launch for the festival I went incognito and read up on and sampled a few of the beers that I would be judging.

There were twenty three beers to be judged in total so we settled down for a nice afternoons work up on the bright third floor of the porterhouse sitting round the old copper kettle. The beers were tasted blind so we had no idea which was which. Rachael and a bar man whose name I don't recall had the job of climbing all the stairs to bring the beers up, thanks for that guys. A representative from each brewery was present to check the quality of their beer before it was sent up. There were four lagers, twelve ales, four stouts and three speciality beers.

I'll try to give a flavour of what's involved in judging a beer and how I tried to mark each beer. We marked the beer under five categories, appearance, smell, taste, mouthfeel and drinkability.

Appearance: This is simply what does the beer look like. Is it nice and clear? Does it have a good colour? Does it look appealing/make you want to drink it?

Smell: Give the beer a good sniff. What can you smell? Anything at all? Malt, hops? Floral? Sweet? Spicy?

Taste: Finally take a sip of the beer. Swallow it slowly. What can you taste at the start of the sip, in the middle and at the end on the back of your tongue? Does the taste linger afterwards? There are loads of flavour descriptors for beer as seen in the beer flavour wheel at the right, can you taste any of them?

Mouthfeel: On the next sip let the beer stay in your mouth for a while. What's it's consistency? Is it light, heavy, watery, chewy, thin, too fizzy, not fizzy enough?

Drinkability: After the first sip do you want another one? If not that's not so good. After a few sips are you left wanting more? If so good.

All these things combine to make a great tasting beer. So we started into our onerous task tasting each beer and evaluating them all carefully and fairly. We had bread and water in between each. Of course when tasting this many beers you can only have a few sips of each. Getting drunk will ruin your tastebuds and you won't be able to evaluate them fairly. When I told people I would be judging a beer competition they all thought it sounded great as I'd be drinking many many pints of beer. I think over the whole afternoon we didn't drink more than two and a half pints in total. It was also spread over a few hours and with plenty water too. Not quite the drinking session people think judging beer would be.

The first lager proved to be the best. Everyone admired it's appealing yellow gold colour. It had a lovely floral nose and a great bitter taste. It was the sort of beer you could imagine yourself having a few of outside in the summer.

Best Lager:
Gold – Hersbrucker brewed by Peter Mosley of the Porterhouse
Silver – Belfast Lager brewed by Bernard Sloan of Whitewater Brewery

This was the biggest category and the most difficult to judge as we tasted many fine ales. There were around five beers here that I thought were fantastic. There were about two ales that I wasn't so keen on but other judges liked them so it was just a matter of personal taste.
Ale number five was delivered up to the judges and we all remarked on it's perfect appearance. A beautiful dark ruby colour with a lovely natural white head. It had a lovely sweet rich spicy smell. The taste, beautiful caramel toast and bitter playing off each other to make a complex tasty ale. Fantastic mouthfeel and great drinkability. We all wanted more and all were agreed that this was a top scoring ale that would be very hard to beat.
Until ale number nine arrived nothing impressed us as much as five. But now there was another contender for the top spot. It had the looks and a great floral, grapefruit smell but would it be able to measure up in the taste stakes? Yes it would, a fantastic bitter citrus beer balanced wonderfully by a complex biscuity malt taste. Great mouthfeel and in drinkability stakes we could only say it tasted of more please.
After much discussion we decided that on the day ale number five had the edge.

Best Ale:
Gold – Bock brewed by Cuilan Loughnane of White Gypsy Brewery
Silver – Galway Hooker brewed by Ronan Brennan and Aidan Murphy of Galway Hooker

There were four stouts and each of them scored very highly with not much to choose between three of them. The fourth stout delivered up though was clearly a case of saving the best until last.

Stout four looked the perfect picture of a stout with a lovely head that wasn't too white, it looked a bit creamy which I like, inky black too. The smell and taste were exceptional. We had our winner.

Best Stout:
Gold – Wrasslers 4X brewed by Peter Mosley of the Porterhouse
Silver – Plain brewed by Cuilan Loughnane of White Gypsy Brewery

Speciality Beers:
Speciality number two was certainly special. It looked like a great stout and it smelled wonderfully of chocolate. It's taste was fantastic and all the judges liked it. In terms of drinkability, well the sampler glass was finished by one of the judges who said he wanted more to check it actually was that nice.
Speciality number three was another weiss beer which looked great and tasted of bubblegum, lemon and spices. It wasn't too sweet which was surprising. One of the judges made this their favourite of the three.

Best Speciality Beer:
Gold – Chocolate Truffle Stout brewed by Peter Mosley of the Porterhouse
Silver – Friar Weisse brewed by Russell Garret of Franciscan Well Brewery

A debate followed to decide which of the beers should be crowned overall winner. It was a really difficult decision after all the fantastic beer we'd had. There was great quality and taste on show overall. The Bock brewed by Cuilan Loughnane of White Gypsy and Messers Maguire is a great beer, complex and full of flavour. It deserves a much wider audience and hopefully winning this competition will bring it that since it will be stocked in all the Porterhouse bars for a year.

Michael Jackson Award:
Gold – Bock brewed by Cuilan Loughnane of White Gypsy Brewery
Silver - Wrasslers 4X brewed by Peter Mosley of the Porterhouse

With the hard work over we posed for some photos then the certificates for the awards were presented. Peter Mosley from the Porterhouse had a lot of certificates at the end. Cuilan Loughnane from White Gypsy/Messers Maguire looked genuinely surprised when his Bock was declared the winner of the Michael Jackson award for best Irish beer.

After this we adjourned to the bar for some pints with no pressure. It's much more tiring than you think to judge a beer. You have to concentrate on it and try not to get tipsy. Of course we had a pint of the winning beer and a great chat to all the brewers involved. But that's another story. It was great to meet Tom Doorley and Tony Brookes who were enthusiastic and knowledge judges. Thanks a million to everyone at the Porterhouse for asking me to be involved with this great award. This will be the beginning of great things for the Irish craft brewing scene. Brewers Unite, indeed!

Independent Irish Beer and Whiskey Festival at the Porterhouse

Last night was the press launch of the Porterhouse's Independent Irish Beer and Whiskey festival. The festival runs from the 26th of March to the 5th of April. The festival is hoping to create public awareness of Ireland's small independent breweries and to showcase their beers.

Ireland is often seen as a country with great beer but I really don't see why. Most people drink macro brewed lagers. The beer enthusiasts talk about all the stout here but the reality is that stout is a small section of the beer market. There are only three big stouts and in most pubs you can only get Guinness. If you want something different from macro lager and Guinness in most pubs in Ireland, you're out of luck. Most pubs don't have a choice and don't have any interest in stocking anything different or from an independent brewery. From what I've seen it would appear that the majority of customers don't want choice either.

It's pretty depressing but there are some glimmers of hope. The Porterhouse has been going for many years now making and selling their beers in their own pubs which is one solution to the problem of publicans not wanting to stock your beer. It's very hard for a new brewery to get it's beers into pubs. So it's great to see a festival like this where the Porterhouse is stocking beers from independent breweries north and south. It's a great opportunity for people to sample these beers and taste how good they are. Then hopefully they'll ask for them to be stocked in more pubs.

The breweries involved in the festival are The Porterhouse, Galway Hooker, Whitewater, Franciscan Well, Messrs Maguire and Hilden.

A crew of eight from Irish Craft Brewer were invited along to the press launch. I signed up right away. I've had most of the before but there were a few new festival beers to tempt me. First of all I made a beeline for Purgatory pale ale by the Franciscan Well. This is a new batch brewed for the festival season. It's a wonderfully hoppy pale ale and just as good as it was last year. I also tried the Porterhouse's Chocolate Truffle Stout and really enjoyed it. It smelled exactly like a chocolate truffle and was very rich and tasty. Galway Hooker also had a new special beer a dunkel weiss. I really liked this, nice fruity yeast and a good toffee background.

Anyway I won't bore you with any more descriptions of beer. Really you should go down to any of the Porterhouse pubs and try the beers for yourself which would be much better than listening to me waffling on about them.

Two Crochet Shawls and Spinning Progress

It hasn't all been spinning here at Aran Brew, I've been doing a bit of crochet as well. I decided to make a lace shawl for the summer from the lovely Handmaiden Seasilk I ordered from the US last year. I finally decided on the Shill Shell Shawl pattern and got started. When you crochet something big like this the first row is always the hardest. So I went very slowly and finally got through the first row. After this it gets easier as it's a three row repeating pattern which is interesting enough to keep me interested but it's not so difficult that I want to give up. I find lace knitting really difficult and I was glad to find that crochet lace is a bit easier. Since you're only ever working with one stitch at a time it's easier to keep track of.

Here's what I've done so far. The silk yarn is amazing, it's the colour of the Caribbean sea.

Inspired by Jagienka over at 2 Knit Or Not 2 Knit I decided to make the Drops crochet shawl she had made. I want a triangular shawl for spring and this looks nice, quick and easy. My friend had given me some pink with silver yarn so I decided to use it in this shawl.

The spinning is going well. May I present my first bobbin of yarn.

Left to right we have white blue faced leicester, green merino, more blue faced leicester, a purple merino silk blend and a pink merino silk blend.I'm actually finding the blue faced leicester a bit harder to work with so I need to do more practice with it to get the hang of it.

I decided to spin this pink merino silk blend as my very first full project on the wheel. I got this combed top from Wingham. It weighs 100g so I'll spin it onto one bobbin until I have about 50g left and spin the remaining 50g onto another bobbin then ply the two together. It's going well. I'm finding it easy enough to get a rhythm going. As you can see in the picture there are some bits that are a bit too twisty. These will even themselves out when I ply it. I'd prefer to have it a bit too twisty than too loose and falling apart. I wonder what this yarn will be when it grows up?

Gloria, I think I got your number

There is no justification, I can make excuses like it's my 30th birthday next month, it's a natural progression from a spindle, the price is going up soon, the free lazy kate offer ends next month etc etc. There are no excuses as I need another hobby like I need a hole in the head. A spinning wheel is a big expensive thing to buy when really nobody needs a spinning wheel anymore. I don't know why watching twist run up into fibre that's being pulled out is so mesmerizing and addictive. But now I have a spinning wheel and I can watch it for years to come.

I spent a while researching wheels and eventually having looked at lots of articles like this one in Knitty by the talented font of spinning knowledge Abby Fraquemont I decided on the Louet Julia. It's the newest Louet wheel with scotch tension, lots of ratios (which are kinda like bicycle gears) so you can spin many types of yarn on it and it is from a reliable company known for making solid long lasting wheels. Also it comes with a tensioned lazy kate and is going up in price soon so the time seemed right to buy it.

The very helpful and nice lady at Scottish Fibres where I purchased it also recommended the wheel to me. I can really recommend this company. They answered all my questions about the wheel, they stock a great range of fibres and the postage to Ireland for such a big heavy object was very reasonable.

Here's a look in the box.

It comes flat packed. There's an instruction book and a set of tools with the wheel so putting it together couldn't have been easier. It's actually no more than screwing a few bits together. Even the most flat pack phobic should have no trouble putting it together.

Here she is all set up. Isn't she pretty? I think it's a really lovely wheel. I like the modern upright look and the engineering of it is superb. So simple with no unnecessary parts. Notice the little collie toy, Scottish Fibres included him as a wheel mascot for free. A lovely touch I thought.

When I started thinking of getting a wheel I got a few spinning books. I got Start Spinning by Maggie Casey which is a great introduction. She explains spinning really clearly and she also explains how to set up a spinning wheel which was really useful. I like this book a lot, there's not too much detail to confuse you with and she manages to explain something very visual in clear written terms which is no mean feat.

I also got Colour In Spinning by Deb Menz. This is a more advanced book that I'll use when I start dying and putting colours together in my spinning. It's like a textbook, there's so much information and the large format of the book makes it all very clear. There's a great explanation of colour at the start and the book is worth it for this alone. There's more than that though, she explains dying, carding and combing to mix fibres. A great addition to the library.

So back to the wheel. It spins like a dream. It's double treadle and it's so easy to treadle. They say you should always try a wheel before you buy as you might not like it. I didn't have that option but thankfully I love this wheel. It seems to suit me. I spent a while just treadling and changing the ratios and the brake band to get a feel for the wheel. Since then I've been practicing every day. I'm now getting the hang of it a bit more I think. Since I had the spindle I found the drafting ok. I have to remember to let the yarn feed onto the bobbin and to treadle slowly. I think I'm nearly at the point where I can try a full project.

When I was reading about spinning wheels lots of people mentioned that your wheel has to have a name. Celtic Memory has a lovely post about the arrival of her new wheel and the search for a name for her.

A lot of people also mentioned that you can't just name your wheel, you have to spend time with it and at the right moment the wheel will tell you it's rightful name. I didn't really believe this and was all set just to call the wheel Julia as that's the name on the box. Well my wheel had other ideas. I was bringing it downstairs last night and the name Gloria popped into my head and won't leave. So her name is Gloria.

Cantillon Public Brew Day, Brussels, 7 March 2009

Cantillon Public Brew Day, Brussels, Belgium, 7 March 2009.

It's six thirty in the morning on a rather chilly morning in Brussels somewhere near the Gare du Midi. Me and Dave been following The Beer Nut and his wife who have negotiated the train system and given all the directions because it's too early for us. We're now somewhere in a run down looking neighborhood passing some waste ground when what looks like an old garage turns out to be the brewery we're looking for. The famous Cantillon lambic brewery.

Walking inside is like walking back through time, it's one of the most unusual and unique breweries I've ever been in. We met fellow Irish Craft Brewer Sean who directed us to the coffee and croissants which we ate in the brewery bar beside the fire which had just been lit. I think I woke up enough at that point to really start looking around at that stage.

It was announced that the english tour was starting so we traipsed off after our guide who was great, he gave a good explanation of brewing and how Cantillon brews for the non beer nerds though I suspect only beer nerds would be on a brewery tour at 6.30 in the morning.

The mash in was just beginning. A mixture of 65% barley malt and 35% unmalted wheat is fed into the mash tun where it's mixed with hot water. Paddles driven by a system of gears and belts mix up the porridge. We left the mash tun at this point where hopefully the enzymes would be gearing up to convert the starches in the grains to fermentable sugars.

We walked up the stairs which were old, wet and wooden. I liked this complete disregard for modern life with it's stainless steel stairways with handrails and signs telling you not to fall over. If anything the look of these stairs would make you more careful.

We had a look at the two kettles which would be filling up with wort in a few hours. The boil lasts three hours with an evaporation of 25%. Hops are added for their antiseptic qualities only. They are aged hops and they don't add any flavour or aroma hops at all.

It was then up to the attic where it's cold as the fresh air getting in is vital to the process. It also helps with the storage of ingredients. This is where Cantillon veers off on a tangent from most breweries. Up until this step it's merely eccentric, they use old equipment and a rather odd mash regime but up here is where it gets properly strange. Most breweries pitch or inoculate their wort with a specific strain of brewing yeast and any other organism in the beer is considered to be undesirable.

In Cantillon however they open the windows give a big shout out and invite anything and everything to a party in the big copper bath tub. Here's the aptly named cool ship before all this happens.

Later on in the day it looks like this.

The wort is splashed and aerated as it falls into the bath. The copper in the bath and the cool temperature outside ensures the wort cools down by the morning. Cooling wort is most prone to infection as all manner of beasties want to eat all that sugar. In most breweries the wort is cooled rapidly in sterile conditions and the yeast pitched as quickly as possible to avoid infections. In Cantillon whatever lives in the air and rafters is allowed to colonize the wort, it's a mixture of different wild yeasts, brettanomyces, and various other microbes.

They are somewhat picky about which microbes come to the party and only brew in winter as in summer the real trouble making bacteria are about. After the all night party the wort is moved to old wooden casks to ferment. When you walk into the room the smell of sour beer hits you in the face. It was pretty potent particularly as it was so early.

The casks are left open with the hole covered for the fermentation. When fermentation finishes the cask is sealed and the wait begins. A sign in the room says 'Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans lui' which means time doesn't respect that which is done without him. Many breweries advertise their dedication to time and tradition but most of them measure time in weeks. Cantillon will wait three years before tasting and blending of the casks begins. Each cask is different so they must all be tasted and then the skilled brewer blends them together to make the famous gueuze.

In the cask room there is also a fruit press and filter which is used to crush fruit to make juice for the kriek and framboise. Kriek is made from cherries and the framboise from raspberries which are blended with year old lambic. Many lambic breweries have given up on this tradition and use sugar, aspartame and flavoured syrups to make their fruit flavoured beers. I've had one of them and it tasted like an alcopop.

Our guide also explained the casks are cleaned the traditional way by putting hot water and some chains into them, sealing them and then spinning them.

The lambic is then bottled and after this it can be stored for a long time. Our guide pointed out that we are witnessing the beginning of a process that will take three or more years. It's a small brewery and they only brew 20-30 times a year and since it's aged for so long they can't brew to meet demand.

A brewery tour wouldn't be a tour without a tasting. At this stage it was eight in the morning so breakfast beer was on the menu. I've had a few lambics since Dave has liked them for years. I've not liked any of the lambics I've tried and was worried I was coming all this way to watch the brewing of a beer I did not like. We can't get Cantillon in Ireland you see.

I tasted some gueuze and it's extraordinary, I know everyone says that about Cantillon but it really is. It's nothing like any beer I've ever had. It's wonderfully tart and fresh with fruit flavours of sour crab apples. It's more like champagne or something than beer but it's much better than champagne.

We also tried the Iris which I loved. It's smells a lot better than the gueuze which is probably due to the fresher hops that go into it.

After our early morning tour we went back to our hotel for a snooze. Beer that early in the morning is too strange. Later on in the day after lunch we came back to look at the beer filling the cool ship.

We decided to split a bottle of Rosé de Gambrinus after our second tour around the brewery. Yes it's pink beer! Not just any pink beer, I can confidently state that this is the best pink beer in the world. It's absolutely amazing, tart and fruity like the raspberries that go into it. The Beer Nut very kindly agreed to bring home a bottle of it for me, I'll have it instead of champagne for my 30th birthday.

The rest of the photos are here if you want to see more.

Cheers guys.

The Session 25: Love Lager

This month The Beer Nut hosts the session with the title love lager. He exhorts us to just get out there and have what the next guy's having.

It's cold and there's no sign of spring so I'm going to talk about Red Stripe beer. It brings me back to Negril, Jamaica where Dave and I got married last year. Red Stripe is the ordinary everyday beer in Jamaica. We drank a lot of cocktails in the evenings but for a sneaky drink during the day Red Stripe light is great as it's low alcohol. We discovered that for special occasions when you need to dance all night Guinness and Red Bull is the drink of choice. Red Stripe light tastes of nothing really but Red Stripe is ok. When it's really warm soft drinks are just too sweet to quench your thirst but beer really works.

So here's to sitting back with a Red Stripe and gazing out at a view as relaxing as this one.

I have some slightly related lager news about my Cold Weather Kolsch. I said I came back after christmas to find the Better Bottle had leaked as I hadn't completely closed the high flow valve. I learned that lesson and it's all working well now. The better bottles are great, I can rack to secondary from them easily and bottle straight from them.

I left the Kolsch in the bottle and forgot about it. I went to empty it this week and tasted some to see how bad it was and was surprised to find it tasted ok, not just ok fairly good. I racked it to my keg and injected some carbon dioxide. Now I just have to wait until it carbonates but I think it might be fine to drink. More than that it might be drinkable. Another home brewing lesson learned, don't throw out beer until you're sure it's gone off.

Lovely Lilac Merino

I blogged before about the fiber that had arrived from Wingham Wool Work. I set to work spinning the merino in the silver grey colour though to me I think it's more a light lilac colour.

Having a beer and spinning go well together. The Edelweiss is really good actually, lovely and light. The merino was a little harder to spin than the beer was to drink, it's a short staple fiber so it needs a lot of twist and it works better spun finely. I spun about 50g of the fiber and then made a two ply yarn from the singles. I made one single and then plied from a centre pull ball. I kept a bit more of an eye on the plying this time. At the end the yarn was a little over twisted but the soaking and drying sorted that out.

At the end there was 62m of about aran weight yarn.

A close up with a 10 cent coin for scale.

Iced Cupcakes

I made some cupcakes this weekend. The icing is a cool lipstick pink colour. Here's the recipe.

175g unsalted butter
175g caster sugar
3 eggs
175g self raising flour, sieved
finely grated zest and juice of a lemon

225g icing sugar, sieved
2-3 teaspoons lemon juice
2 drops Cochineal food dye

Preheat oven to 190 degrees Celsius.
Cream butter and sugar in a bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time while beating the mixture. Fold in the flour and the lemon juice and zest.

Spoon into a bun tin lined with bun cases. Bake for 15-20 minutes until pale golden, the mixture should have risen. Turn out and cool on a wire rack.

For the icing mix all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk. Mix in lemon juice until it's smooth and not too runny. Spoon the icing onto the cakes or use an icing bag.

I recommend having them while having a nice cup of tea and a sit down.