When I post a photo of a high ABV beer on my social media feeds, replies usually include something along the lines of “That’s a wine right there!” Well, it obviously isn’t but if you’re used to drinking low-mid ABV beers then I get where you’re coming from.
Such big beasts do exist in our local beer market and I opened a few over the Christmas and New Year period.
Let’s start with the joint lowest ABV of this quartet – a mere 10% – but anything less wouldn’t make sense to be included in a blog post entitled Double Digits, would it? Snowball by Kilkeel brewery Beer Hut is labelled as a stout with vanilla and coconut. But WHAT’S THIS? It’s a PINT BOTTLE! Pfft, it’ll never catch on.
Cap popped and into the glass with you. A sticky, fizzing tan coloured head releases sweet mocha and coconut aromas to float around my nostrils. A nanosecond later I’m tasting toasty coconut and light milk chocolate with a little bit of espresso coffee underneath it all. Vanilla is definitely the younger sibling of the two labelled ingredients on the bottle’s front – any more of it and the beer would possibly end up tasting like another of Beer Hut’s creations, the marshmallow imperial stout Fluffier Bunny. With Snowball, the coconut is prominent enough to satisfy the likes of me who actually wants to taste coconut in a coconut stout – it’s there but not in a sickly way. As for the ABV, you really wouldn’t think this is anywhere near 10%, it slid down my throat much too quickly. Some double digit beers taste boozy but not this one. Enjoy slowly.
The other 10%er here is Lacada’s Port na Spaniagh – it’s the Portrush brewery’s first barley wine and named after a bay beside Lacada Point on the north coast. If you don’t know what a barley wine is or why it’s so called, the style refers to the beer’s strength and that it’s about the same ABV as a wine but made from malted barley rather than grape.
First thing I note on tasting Port na Spaniagh is a deliciously chewy and juicy sultana-esque sweetness. It took me right back to being a kid and seeing my Granny looking for those wee matchbox size packs of sultanas in her cupboards. Do those little boxes still exist?
Caramel pulls up alongside the sultanas and suddenly I’ve spots of sherry hitting the sides of my tongue. Floral notes bounce in for a few seconds too but then it’s back to the caramel. Tis a complex wee fellow this one but barley wines are never easy to break down are they, which is why there needs to be more of them around. I enjoyed it, it’s a Sunday night sipper.
I’ve literally now just realised in the nine years of this blog existing, I’ve never reviewed a barley wine – so waddayaknow, let’s do two in a row! From Belfast, Boundary’s offering is the punchy 13.4% ABV If We Can Live Through This What Comes Next Will Be Marvellous, a musical reference to the crap we’re all still enduring.
The label says it’s barrel aged with cocoa, orange zest and vanilla – that barrel being a sherry cask from Boatyard Distillery which then had Boundary’s late 2020 barley wine Maybe I Like The Misery poured into it.
This new barrel aged version does indeed have a sherry punch to it, and although I’m certainly getting orange zest in the finish, the cocoa seems to be lacking. Don’t be buying this if full-on cocoa is your thing. Do buy it if enjoying quality beers is your thing, though. There’s also a hint of cinnamon and a smidge of star anise lurking in the glass but they’re playing second fiddle to that sweet sherry. It’s another beer that belies its strength but sometimes you should drink a beer because it’s delicious rather than worrying about the ABV.
Finally, we’ll dive into the strongest beer that’s been brewed in the 6 and a bit years existence of Mourne Mountains Brewery in Warrenpoint. Named after the walking challenge that covers the seven highest points in the Mournes, Seven Sevens is an 11% ABV triple IPA. As hazy as your memory the morning after a really good beer festival (remember those), it’s expectedly thick and orangey gold in colour.
There’s a big savoury onion hit at first when lips meet glass. It’s harsh but you’d argue, “Man up son, it’s a triple IPA”. Yeah I get that, but I don’t want a full 440ml can of harshness. There’s a good packing of tangy apricot in the mix too but that savoury punch never retracts as much as I’d like it to. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike Seven Sevens but there’s just a touch too much of alcoholic hop burn in there to make me want to buy another. Mourne Mountains Brewery make some excellent beer and this falls a bit below their usual high standards.
It’s great to see Northern Irish breweries step outside of the usual pale ale or IPA bubble and focus on brewing something different. It’s even better to see people who wouldn’t normally drink outside of that bubble also trying something different. The more variety of styles we have on our local shelves, the better for the beer scene in general. It prevents stagnation, it improves palates and it’s exciting to see.