As you might remember, in the summer I had a bit of a holiday romance with a double IPA by Galway Bay Brewery called Of Foam and Fury. Generous foaming halves of the stuff – a robust 8.5% abv and Ireland’s first commercially-brewed DIPA – seared into my mind, heart and to some extent liver just how far and fast the Irish craft beer scene was growing. It’s an incredibly accomplished beer, made all the more special by discovering it without any pre-attached knowledge or bias.
Towards the end of last year, I had the chance to try it again. I managed to get hold of another bottle thanks to Connor Murphy, who is annoyingly good at both beer writing and beer brewing, and extremely generous to boot. What a guy, honestly. As luck would have it, the equally generous Phill Elliott, freshly returned from a no-holds-barred trip around America and its breweries, offered me (in the most casual way) if I might like one of the bottles of Pliny the Elder he had brought back with him? Well, gosh, I dare say I rather would, actually.
It all came together so perfectly: the chance to put Of Foam and Fury to what many believe is the ultimate test of a DIPA – a direct comparison to one of the style’s most superlative examples. I love Of Foam and Fury, but part of me knew that enjoyment was rooted in rose-tinted memory of a beery holiday with friends. Surely, a side-by-side taste test with Pliny would settle the matter. How wrong I was.
Sticky with orange and caramel, boosted by a muscular, oily bitterness the the edges of its ripe fruitiness edges in sharp lime pith, Of Foam and Fury has more in common with BrewDog Hardcore IPA than Pliny. Galway Bay’s DIPA was all very much as I remembered it, still fresh and bright and quite boisterous in its condition and flavour. One taste transported me back to the Black Sheep pub in Dublin, surrounded by friends old and new. A truly brilliant beer.
So what of Pliny the Elder? For starters it’s a far paler, pinier and crisply bitter beer. Here, the hop character is more defined by mandarin, mango and lemon from the Amarillo and Centennial hops, its bitterness more assertive and sharper. It’s certainly a more accomplished double IPA – earning its famous ‘pint-ability’ with an outrageously clean flavour profile and almost soft mouthfeel – but despite all of that technical brilliance, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Of Foam and Fury.
Wait, what? The beer is better in execution but the lesser of the two? Yes and no. There is of course a glorious juiciness in both, but for me the beer that had the fullest and most complete flavour profile on the day was Of Foam and Fury. Of course, the first question you might ask is how old was the Pliny? Five weeks from bottling. Not ideal perhaps, but more than acceptable for appreciating its world-famous hop character. I think that perhaps the stresses of travel took some toll on the beer, and of course it won’t taste as good as the beer fresh from the brewery, but I feel fairly certain I got a fair impression of it.
So if I got to taste the two beers side-by-side (a pleasure in itself) and was fairly happy with the outcome, why do I think the test was a failure? It wasn’t that, alongside a fresher, younger upstart, Pliny couldn’t live up to its colossal reputation. It wasn’t because Pliny isn’t a great beer, because it really is. It’s because, in a way, I did both beers a disservice by forcing them to compete. That’s why it has taken me so long to finish a blog post about it. The results told me what the beers tasted like, and which one I ultimately preferred at that moment in time, but that was it. I knew there was something to be learned but I couldn’t see it straight away.
It recently became clear to me. The desire to test the beers alongside each other was not because I wanted to enjoy them both, it was because I wanted to pit them against each other. It’s something that’s increasingly prevalent in the craft beer industry – the need to brew the new ‘ultimate’ version of something, and for drinkers to become judges, to try a selection of the same style alongside each other to find The Best, not to enjoy them on their own merits.
This desire to brew the next big thing is rooted in competition and ambition, to beat what’s come before, but that desire to brew ‘the next Pliny’ and similar sentiments isn’t helping us brew better beers – it’s holding us back. Of Foam and Fury clearly took in a number of influences, and wasn’t really a direct clone of anything I’ve had before. However, there have been plenty of occasions where a beer I’ve had clearly was trying to clone something else.
We’re in an age now where the beers that defined the best in craft beer in the past decade, Pliny being chief among them, are no longer at the cutting edge. On this side of the Atlantic, our craft beer industry is frequently guilty of attempting to copy in some respect something from the States. I think our beer scene needs to keep doing what it does best – integrate ideas and traditions but relentlessly innovate and look beyond. We need to pioneer new styles, or bin them if they don’t help us make better beers. We need to measure the distance between where we are now and where we were before, and increase it, not shorten it.