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Monday, March 13, 2006

Irish Ales - Wexford Irish Cream Ale and Smithwick's

Irish ales form more a loose configuration than a cohesive style. They tend to be low- to medium- bodied amber-red ales with a creamy malt palate. But beyond a general range of qualities, nothing especially distinguishes the style. I found a couple, and their differences seem to prove the rule.

Smithwick's was founded in 1710 in Kilkenny (making it Ireland's oldest) and now inhabits an abbey to which it was originally adjacent. It was purchased by Guinness in 1964, who has now made a big push to get it to American markets. (I've seen it around Portland, but haven't heard much buzz surrounding it. Methinks it may be a short-lived experiment, so if you find a pint or bottle, buy it.) I was informed by an Irish-born waitress at what was formerly my neighborhood pub (County Cork) that it's pronounced "Smitticks." Wikipedia concurs, but most webfeet are ignorant of the fact, so beware.

Tasting notes
A tawny-red brew with a fluffy head, light nose with notes of caramel. Early impressions are deceiving--could be any mass-market amber. But the flavor is impressive in subtlety. The initial flavor is toffee sweetness and a gentle, soft mouthfeel. The finish is very clean and doesn't cloy at all--surprising following the initial sweet note; after a sip, you're hand is making another trip to your lips. We don't tend to hail session ales in the Northwest, but we should; it's hard to find a beer that you could drink over the course of an evening and enjoy the last pint as much as the first.

(It is also, incidentally, one of Sally's favorite beers, and that's high praise--at this point her palate is at least as good as mine.)

Hops: Unknown
Alcohol By Volume: 4.5%
Original Gravity: Unknown
BUs: Unknown


Wexford Irish Cream Ale
Wexford is one of the beers available with a widget, which seems like an unfair advantage--perhaps Smithwick's should join the growing crowd. I was able to learn exactly squat about Wexford, except what was posted on the importer's webpage. So I thus hasten to the review...

Tasting notes
After the entertaining nitro cascade, the beer settled into a deep amber, topped by a cream-colored, creamy head. The aroma was suprising: pure green apple. I sniffed deeper and got caramel notes. This marks the first time I've gotten a caramel apple aroma from a beer. I feared the worst, but there were no off-flavors; I haven't a clue why it smelled like that.

Like the Smithwick's, it was a creamy, gentle ale. I was surprised to find a fair amount of hopping supporting the caramel sweetness, though. It wasn't exactly NW hoppy, but it was surprisingly hoppy for an Irish. A good beer, but I would call it less polished, less nuanced than the Smithwick's.

Hops: Unknown
Alcohol By Volume: 5.0%
Original Gravity: Unknown
BUs: Unknown


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Irish Beer (Ain't Green)

As you all know, St. Paddy's is just a week away. For the occasion, I have tracked down three Irish beers for review: Wexford Irish Cream Ale, Smithwick's, and the old standby, Harp. I'll follow these up with the stouts--Beamish, Guinness (draught and extra stout), and Murphy's (if I can find it). I may even try my hand at a black and tan.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

Bittering Units - Measuring Hoppiness

So in my reviews, I used stats that included the enigmatic "BUs" (sometimes rendered "IBUs") . This stands for bittering units (or international bittering units), and it's a standard chemical equation for how much alpha acid from hops is utilized in a beer. It's fairly useful shorthand for estimating how bitter a beer is going to be, with a few caveats. I'll try to use them as often as possible when writing about beers, so this handy primer should be valuable.

What Hops Do
Without hops, beer would varying degrees of sweet (depending on the amount and fermentation of the malt), something like a breakfast cereal. Hops, which have a complex chemical structure, are used principally for bittering--they offset the sickly sweet of malt and make a beer drinkable. The chemical in the hop that creates bitterness is known as "alpha acid." Hops have a multitude of other chemicals, though (some of which are not well understood), and these contribute other flavors and aroma. Each hop has its own character, so those aromas and flavors vary. So, two beers hopped at the same alpha level but with different hops will be roughly as "bitter," but will taste different.

  1. Bitterness is a perceived, not absolute, quality. There are some hops I find intensely bitter like English Target. To my tongue, they produce a far more bitter beer than one made from an equivalent amount of alpha acids derived from, say, Chinook.
  2. Bitterness Units are only a mathematical calculation of the percent of alpha acids per ounce. The more malt used in a beer, the less bitter it will be. So if a pale ale has 35 BUs, it will taste pretty hoppy, but an imperial stout with only 35 BUs would be overly sweet.
  3. Much of the flavor that comes from hops isn't bitter. BridgePort IPA has 50 BUs, but few people would describe it as "bitter" because the hop concoction (there are five varieties) is so citrusy.
Using BUs
An average beer is around 5% alcohol by volume (1.050 OG). Roughly speaking, this is how bitterness would be perceived in that beer based on BUs:
10-15 - almost no perceived bitterness (industrial lagers)
14-20 - mild (golden ales, wheat beers)
20-30 - some bitterness (brown ales, English bitter)
30-40 - pronounced bitterness (pilsners, pale ales, porters)
40-50 - sharp bitterness (IPAs)
50+ saturated, intense bitterness
Some beers are super hopped, in part because of high malt bills. A few examples:
Strong ales - 40-65 BUs
Imperial stouts - 50-80 BUs
Barleywines - 60-100 BUs
Imperial or double IPAs - 65-100 BUs

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Widmer '06 Hoppy Red Ale

Before we address Widmer's Spring seasonal, let's note this at the outset: there are no red ales. Okay, that's not entirely true. There are Belgian reds like Rodenbach, but they are uniquely Belgian (sour and tart; funky). There are also Irish ales, which are reddish in hue and which Coors hyped into a pseudo-style with Killian's. But red ales as such are a modern phenomenon, and seem to have been invented along with ambers to fill the spectrum between pale ales (which in Britain might have been anything from straw to scarlet) and browns. There's no real style though--some reds are like their Irish forebears, mild and malty. Others, like the Widmers', are huge and hoppy.

Tasting notes
Hoppy Red Ale is well-named. It is, indeed, red--richly so. The white head burned off fairly quickly, owing to the high alcohol content, but laced nicely down the glass. I got almost no aroma--just a fresh, aley note with a tiny bit of hop bitterness. As the beer warmed, the hops came out a little more, but not much.

I'd love to hear someone else's opinion about this beer, because I distrust my own. I found the beer to be the ale equivalent of Starbucks--a strong, I'd call it harsh bitterness, but thin and out of balance. The flavors are all strong: a clear hop bitterness (no funky NW hopping); a strong alcohol bite; a soapy maltiness; and a resinous finish that coats the mouth.

The beer resisted me, despite qualities I'd normally appreciate. Could be worth revisiting.

Hops: Alchemy (bittering), Simcoe, Cascade
Alcohol By Volume: 7.1%
Original Gravity: 17
BUs: 50



I have concluded after three minutes of uncareful thought that, where ratings are concerned, less is more. The various systems of detailed ratings on each element of the beer thwart the purpose, methinks. Therefore, I will henceforth employ these categories to all beers:
  • A Classic - a superlative example of the style.
  • Excellent - technically flawless, just short of the kind of character that distinguishes it as as the best in its style.
  • Good - a well-made beer that is a fairly common example of its style.
  • Average - nothing stands out; beer doesn't have off-flavors, but fails to impress as a good example of its style.
  • Not Poisonous - off-flavors mar the recipe.
  • Poisonous - off-flavors so profound the beer is undrinkable.
Almost every commercial brewery should be able to make at least average beer, but there may be a few brewpubs out there who don't. Thus the lower categories. Feel free to comment if you have thoughts.

This post has been updated.