01 September 2007

Ireland and Beer

Our trip to Ireland, August 13-21.
I'm finally getting this post up, with commentary. Work has been a bear pretty much ever since we got back. But anyhoo....
First, two of my favorite non-brew shots from the trip, just to get you in the mood.
Both photos are from Doolin, County Clare, on the west coast -- a wonderful town and a beautiful area.

Now, to set the record straight: Ireland is most assuredly not a craft-beer lover's wasteland. My understanding is that the situation has changed quite a bit in recent years, but at this point delicious craft brews are alive and well in the Emerald Isle. Quite honestly, we merely scratched the surface, and what is perhaps most disappointing is that many of these breweries do not distribute across the Atlantic.

First off, a tip o' the hat to the Black Stuff:

Every time I saw the Guinness Plant in Dublin, I couldn't help but be reminded of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory ("You see: nobody ever goes out...and nobody ever comes in!").
We could have spent a small fortune to take the "Guinness Experience" Tourist Trap, which isn't even at the actual brewery, but decided instead to spend our money on actual potables.
Guinness is, of course, an institution, and the family is responsible for funding the renovation and restoration of various landmarks throughout Dublin and the Republic. Including my beloved St. Patrick's Cathedral, where we stumbled across this against the wall of the north transept, near the organ staircase:
It is, indeed, a Guinness keg, enjoying its second life as a repository for loose change. Underneath the memorial of no less a personage than Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Classic.

Now, Guinness is an interesting brew: much loved, much hated, certainly ubiquitous throughout Ireland, and often misunderstood, at least by Americans. (I have an idea of doing a blind taste test sometime, giving someone Guinness blindfolded -- I'm pretty sure they'll think it's a light-colored beer, going on taste alone). But anyway, it's part of the Irish Beer Experience, no way around it.
They are pretty to look at, no question. I was more than happy to have a Guinness be my first pint in Ireland. It seemed only fitting, especially since Guinness was my gateway to good beer, back in college.

And there is something about going into a local pub, graced (more often than not) with a portrait of Ireland's favorite Americans,

and ordering a pint of the black. Sara is not a Guinness fan, but conceded this much as well.

Even in Ireland, she still didn't like it. But that's ok, since she discovered Smithwick's (which is, in my experience, much different -- and better -- in Ireland).

(Sara's Smithwick's, at our post in McGann's)

One thing that Guinness has started doing in recent months is coming out with limited-batch specialty draughts (once again, not available in the US), and I was able to sample one of these at McGann's, our pub of choice in Doolin.
The Guinness North Star brew is a black, black stout, with a darker head than the standard Draught. From the moment the barkeep ("Are you ok, then?" is the official Irish way of saying, "What'll it be?") drew the draught, I knew I was in for a treat. It's strong -- way, way stronger than regular Guinness; slightly sweet, and all-around more like an American brewer's Irish stout offering -- and, in all likelihood, I imagine it to be more like the original 18th century Guinness recipe.

During our exploration of Doolin, we discovered a small music cafe (a record store with food & drink) that was selling, among other things, bottles of craft brew from the Biddy Early Brewery, from down the road in Ennis. We snatched up a bottle of their Red Ale to try, and liked it so much that we went back the next day and bought 2 bottles to bring back to the States with us.

The Red Biddy is a wonderful brew. Easy-drinking and congenial, it was the absolute perfect thing to enjoy along with a bowl (or three) of homemade potato soup on a rainy Irish afternoon, after a morning of soggy hiking. If ever you are in the west of Ireland, find it and drink it. It can be found here and there in Dublin as well.

Before heading to Dublin, here are a few more shots of McGann's Pub, our evening haunt in Doolin. We never even made it down the road to O'Connell's, since we liked McGann's so much (and the drinks were 20 Euro-cents cheaper, too!).
It was always crowded, but we made do.

McGann's is home to some fantastic live, traditional music. The fiddle and flute duo in the top photo were simply top-shelf performers. And the banjo-accordion-bodhran combo wasn't too shabby, either.

The posted drink price list. Note that Spirits cost the same as the draughts, and bottles cost more!

On to Dublin for the second half of our trip.
After Sunday morning services at St. Patrick's, we headed up the street towards Christ Church and the old city in order to find a good lunch spot. Right across the street from a corner of Christ Church we found the Bull & Castle Gastro Pub, and, without knowing a single thing about the place, thought we'd check it out.
We ended up going back there for supper that night, and again the following night. It was just that good.

Our lunch of boxty, potato wedges with roasted garlic cream cheese, and corn & chicken chowder paired up admirably with the Galway Hooker, most certainly one of the cerevesial highlights of our trip. In addition to having a fantastic website, and winning the award for the best beer name ever, this pale ale with nice malty tones really does have something to contribute to the pale ale constellation. It's a brand new brewery, only around since the summer of 2006. I expect great things from them. Here's an interview. If we had had a few more days in Dublin, I'm sure I would have partaken of this one again. Sara, however, did have it again. So she wins.
One of the many things that most impressed us about this place (in addition to having 7 rotating draughts and 57 bottles from all over the world, and, being an FXB restaurant, serving only local, free-range organic meats) was its offering of "gastro meals" -- any number of mouth-watering entree dishes paired with an appropriate beer, included in the price -- and a pretty reasonable price (for Dublin) at that! We were both so impressed to find a restaurant doing this sort of thing as a matter of course. And we definitely took advantage. We returned for dinner that night.

Sara had a Galway Hooker, which went right along with her spicy grilled chicken sandwich. I went for a haddock & chips (some of the best fish and chips I have ever had, bar none), which came with a Blarney Blonde, from the Franciscan Well Brewery, Cork City, Co. Cork. The Blarney Blonde is a Koelsch-style ale, which is a style I'm not especially familiar with, but am intrigued to explore further, based on this particular sample! It is an extremely light ale, but I found the light color to be quite deceptive. It has quite a bit going on, but it took having it along with the food to bring out all the magic. By itself, it has very nice subtle malt tones with a slight hint of fruit. All subtleties were swept aside when combined with the excellent haddock & chips -- it came to life as a complex ale: bubbly to cleanse the palate, just bitter enough to quench, and slightly sweet for fun.

We didn't spend all of our time at The Bull & Castle, of course. Saturday night found us at McDaid's Pub, south of the Temple Bar on Queen Anne Street. I had a nice Powers whiskey, and Sara had an unfortunate encounter with a Smithwick's from an off-tap. All of the pubs on Saturday night were bursting at the seams, but we managed to actually get seats at McDaid's, which seems to have nice character and a fun atmosphere. Right above our heads we found this fun plaque:
On Sunday night we hit up The Brazen Head, notable for being the oldest pub in Dublin and probably the second-oldest in all of Ireland (it has been a public house, inn, etc. since the 12th century!), and the favorite haunt of many notable Irish patriots such as Daniel O'Connell, Robert Emmett, Wolf Tone, and Michael Collins. A really great pub atmosphere, and a place I'm sure we would have returned to had we more time. I enjoyed a half-pint of MacArdles (why don't American pubs serve up half pints? They're perfect for tastings and for those nights you just don't feel like a whole pint), which I'll review below.

The infamous Red Breast, along with my pleasant half-pint of MacArdles (and my note-taking!)

Back at the Bull & Castle, the second night was just as good, if not better. Sara ordered an amazing pork chop along with Krusovice (plus or minus a few random consonant markings) pilsner, straight from the Czech Republic, that went right along with her chops. She compared it quite favorably with Urquell, no small feat. Perfect bitter balance, where Urquell errs on the side of almost being too bitter. It was a winning combination by all counts.

I departed from my normal routine and sprang for the roast beef (along with mushrooms, mashed potatoes, caramelized onions, Bishop's Finger gravy, and yorkshire pudding) which came with MacArdles, a nice amber-brown Mild Ale. It was an amazing pairing -- simple, straightforward, and solid.
MacArdles (now owned by conglomerate giant Diageo, who also owns Guinness and Smithwick's) is a pleasant reddish-brown ale with no gimmicks or games (much like the roast beef, although the Bishop's Finger Ale gravy was one concession to decadence). I thought the best part of the ale was the finish -- toasty, creamy, and floral.

That second night, we stayed for dessert. Sara got a Red Breast (our favorite Irish Whiskey) and I sprang for something new, a blind pick to go with my chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream and Bushmills butterscotch caramel (yeah, it was that good). I went for an Arainn Rua, brewed by the Arainn Mhor Brewing Company of County Donegal.

Arainn Rua is a bottle-conditioned Red Ale (a red ale that has nothing to do with Killian's) that weighs in at 5.2% but has the complexity of a much stronger brew. It is sweet and complex, peaty, hazel-nutty, and bubbly. As a blind pick, it was amazing with the dessert. The bottle-conditioning gives it a certain resemblance to the Old Speckled Hen, or certain Belgian ales. A definite classy edge here. The bottle enticingly says, a "secret essence of Arainn Mhor ingredient" is added. I wonder if it's not some sort of herb, or perhaps heather -- contributing to the sweet, peaty earthiness that's present. This is an excellent, excellent ale, perhaps my new favorite Irish beer, overall.
don't let the pose fool you, I was loving this brew!

Ireland has many, many more brews to discover, and, judging from the current trend, I imagine there will be even more fine breweries cropping up all over the island. We'll be eager to return in a few years and discover what's new -- in a country that seems to know all about how to balance the ancient with the modern.

Here's a couple of fun links:

A list of Irish Breweries, compiled by the folks at Irish Craft Brewer.
(I'm a little confused by their report that Arainn Mhor brews their ales off-site in Belgium. I don't believe it for a second.)

A fun article about the Bull & Castle, also from Irish Craft Brewer.

1 comment:

The Beer Nut said...

Great article. It's good to see your, eh, research, was so thorough :)

Sadly, Biddy Early is now up for sale and the future of the brand is uncertain: it hasn't been seen in Dublin for a while now.

It's totally true that Árainn Mhór is contract-brewed in Belgium, however. It's a brand first and a beer second.