Northern Irish Beer: Strangford Lough and College Green Breweries
Back in Northern Ireland over Christmas I decided to try and find some local beer, without venturing too far from the snow-battered tundra of South Antrim. Happily it’s becoming relatively easy to find something to satisfy your needs in Northern Ireland if you want a good Scottish/English beer or even a bottle of Sam Adams Boston Lager. However Northern Irish beers have been harder to find.
In recent trips home I’ve found Whitewater Brewery beers in my local, unusually good off licence in Ballyclare (Grape Expectations); Asda in Ballyclare; and Tesco in Newtownabbey (which also had Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Brewdog Punk IPA but not the Tesco Finest Imperial American IPA). However I’ll deal with Whitewater in a later post.
But I was also interested in tracking down beer from other Northern Irish craft breweries: Hilden/College Green; Strangford Lough; Clanconnel; Inishmacsaint, none of were available in those places. I didn’t find any trace of the latter two, but in Donard Wines in Newcastle, County Down, I did find three bottles. After a very nice stop-off at The Cuan in Strangford for mussels and a Guinness (no Northern Irish beer being available in the pub, as usual) before getting the ferry across the lough, I got home and tried them:
Stangford Lough Brewing Company St Patrick’s Best (3.8%)
I’ve never seen Strangford Lough beers before but had heard of them. The Good Beer Guide seem to think their beers are brewed under contract by an English brewery and there’s some discussion of that here. Interestingly their website states: “We are currently selling licenses for the remaining territories in North America to qualified entrepreneurs who will then brew our beers to the high quality standards we specify, and then market and supply them in their individual territory“.
Regardless, the label describes St Patrick’s Best as a “session best bitter” with “a classic Irish malt and hops aroma“. I would be interested to know which classic Irish “session bitter” they’re referring to that has any hop aroma.
The beer poured golden and had a fairly bland taste, with some slight chocolate maltiness. There was no discernable hop bitterness but there was an acidic, slightly vinegary taste that made me suspect the beer was past its best (no pun intended).
In fact on checking the bottle the best before date was 17 November 2010, so it was almost 6 weeks out of date. Although it’s probably unfair on the beer, there was nothing there that would inspire me to try it again, given the option of a fresher bottle.
College Green Belfast Blonde (4.3%)
College Green brewery was apparently established by “the younger generation of the Scullion family” behind Hilden Brewery, and is based at Molly’s Yard restaurant in Belfast. It’s not clear to me whether the beers are actually brewed in Belfast or at the Hilden Brewery in Lisburn, but I suspect it’s the latter. In 2008 I made a special trip to the brewery Lisburn and picked up a selection of Hilden and College Green beers, none of which stuck in my mind.
Belfast Blonde is described on the label as “A clean tasty pale beer with a pleasant and distinct hop character lingering at the end“. It poured a light straw colour with a thin white head which disappeared quickly. It had hardly any discernable smell and the taste was a bland acidic lemony sweetness. I got very little hoppy bitterness and overall found it pretty disappointing.
College Green Headless Dog (4.2%)
I had higher hopes for Headless Dog to pull it out of the bag for College Green. This was described as “A pale hoppy ale produced with North American cascade hops and Munich malt“.
I thought the US hops would make this a great beer like Saltaire’s Cascade Pale Ale. However, it was remarkably tasteless. It looked like cooking lager and there was perhaps a little light hoppiness in the aftertaste if you really looked for it, but not even as much as a decent pilsner.
All in all this was a poor show for Northern Irish craft beer. The Strangford Lough beer, which may or may not even be properly considered Northern Irish, was probably off and therefore my lack of enjoyment may simply be the fault of the shop and myself for not noticing the best before date. The College Green beers, by contrast, were both well within date (by 8-10 months) and were both deathly dull.
Fortunately the more easily available Whitewater Brewery beers are a happier story, which I’ll come to in my next post.