The Sober Destrier's studies recently called for a brief visit to Belfast Zoo and as I was driving the eight hour round trip, the original Belfast pub crawl idea was out the window. On the day, all we had time for was a five minute layover at The Vineyard, a serious off-licence on Ormeau Road. UK beer is what I was after here, looking to exploit the availability of beer we do not yet import from our nearest, dearest neighbour.
Partizan's Mo Chi (that's Mosaic Chinook to you and I) IPA is up first. To call it OK is as generous as I could be without inflating the merits and virtues of this beer. Lemon, lime and grapefruit are the token citrus hop expressions but they lose out to a rather coarse, grainy thing that I can't stand, and that doesn't allow for much drinkability.
Fairly bog standard stuff from Partizan.
More charismatic, in spite of the homebrew quality of the labels when compared to the beautiful Partizan branding, are the beers from Kernel.
Mine were both black and both positively oozed with character befitting of their respective stylistic billings.
India Pale Ale Black is the black IPA (duh), and black indeed it is in the glass. Not so black is the ripe orange, lime and lemon zest of the aroma, tough it does all sit atop a layer of black coffee and dark roasted malt.
There's a coarseness to this too, but tit is the result of an interplay of up-front roasty bitterness from the malt and an intensely punchy hop profile. This cold coffee and bitter fruit effect is the M.O. of the beer, with lemon skins and chocolate offering up yet another interesting contrast of flavour. The gum-tingling bitterness of the beer lasts for ages and the overall effect is juicy and ripe, if a little harsh at first. I'm still not a devotee of the black IPA, but this one, being plenty black and plenty IPA, is a bloody good one.
Don't mind what it says on the label; Kernel's Imperial Brown Stout is even blacker than the BIPA, and at 9.9% I can only conjure up some large, isolated bubbles in lieu of a proper head.
Earthy is the aroma at first, turning to cold, strong, roasty coffee thereafter, and dark chocolate mousse after that. It's chilled, so the nose is ultimately more subdued than I'd like from such a big beer.
The taste is anything but understated though, opening savoury, almost meaty, like a well toned down Rauchbier. Rich, malty dark chocolate sweetness is the order of the day with raisiny milk chocolate and a long bitter finish. Come to think of it, the Cadbury's Fruit and Nut bar analogy I use for Porterhouse's Plain Porter could also be applied here, only you have to imagine that the Plain has been imperialised, wrapped in thick dark chocolate malt and injected with a touch of booze. There's an almost total absence of carbonation, leaving the beer slick and oily and, despite how it sounds, inherently easy to drink.
There's a chance that I may be easy to please when it comes to imperial stouts; I can understand how the texture and weight of a beer like this could be discordant to another palate, but to this one it plays like a big black cosy chair.
The third big black beer on show is Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout. This is one I've been trying to get my hands on for some time, assuming it would have the same old world class as a beer like Courage's Imperial Russian Stout.
It does have a bit of an old world feel to it, being earthy, malty, pub-smoky and slightly boozy, and with a mysterious discernible tang hidden somewhere in the folds. The palate is a gorgeous umami, savoury-ish malt thing at first, with a weight beyond its 7% ABV. There's blackberry jam - the possible source of that tang on the nose - and dark chocolate in spades too, all delivered on a velvety smooth and creamy body.
I likes 'em bigger, blacker and bolder, but this is a very deftly put together beer that I could stand to drink much more than 355 mls of.
Finally, we take a step back into the light with the only local beer I took away from Belfast. The supremely helpful Vineyard staff were honest about the shortcomings of the Yardsman range, but for some sick reason I felt compelled to take a Yardsman IPA for a trial. That I could have gotten more imperial stout goodness in its place is something I immediately regretted upon pouring the glass.
Toffee, toffee, thin watery toffee is how the taste goes, which is a good deal better than the stink of rubber that constitutes the beer's aroma. I very rarely feel the need to jettison a beer, but this poor, sad, desperate and depressing attempt at an IPA went right down the sink.
I should have stayed in the dark.