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Jet Black: Flying to Dublin, Guinness Class

October 14, 2012 8 comments

Guinness has worked very hard over the decades to associate itself intimately with a romantic notion of the Irish drinking culture and their most recent campaign is an especially literal reflection of that.  Every Friday and Saturday night over a 9 week period, Guinness reps will go into pubs in British cities between 6pm and 8pm, giving those drinking Guinness a chance to win a private jet flight to Dublin for the night, departing right there and then.

Through entering a competition on Peer Index, a social networking marketing site, Kate and I won the same prize along with two other couples, from London and Glasgow (none of whom were beer bloggers/tweeters).  We were given tickets to Birmingham Airport, checked into an airport hotel and at 8.15pm flew on a Cessna Citation to Dublin.

We had a fantastic night: the trip in the jet was fast, comfortable and relaxed.  We were taken to O’Donoghue’s for Guinness and music, The Elephant and Castle for dinner (including some incredible chicken wings), the Oliver St. John Gogarty for more beer and music, the Temple Bar and finally the Mercantile Hotel.  We also met up with that evening’s pub competition winners, who had been picked up from Luton and flown out after us.

We were then flown back to Birmingham at two in the morning, with more Guinness (and Guinness chocolate and Guinness nuts) on the plane.  We’d had a great, and slightly surreal time, joining in with the many tourists (particularly German football fans and English Rugby Union fans) enjoying a night out in Temple Bar.  I obviously know that there’s much more to Dublin than Temple Bar (see here) and much more to Irish beer than Guinness (see here) , but it was a really special evening.

As a point of order, I am aware that I wouldn’t have had the chance to win this trip if I hadn’t been regarded an “influencer” by PeerIndex. It’s probably the most impressive “freebie” I’ve ever heard of, and all of us know that word of mouth marketing, such as this post, is the intended result.  But I can tell you that we had a lot of fun and met some nice people.  Even as a BrewDog shareholder, I wasn’t about to turn down such an opportunity, especially given the amount of money I’ve spent on Guinness over the years.

Irish Beer: Porterhouse Hop Head

April 19, 2011 2 comments

I hadn’t actually intended to bring any beer back from Dublin, not least because we were flying with frigging Ryanair and had observed their avaricious attitude to baggage allowances before the flight over.  However I did end up with one bottle of beer, a Porterhouse Hop Head.

The bottle is very nice: a ringpull bottle cap and a metallic label design, although with what might be regarded as slightly BrewDog-esque design and a similar slightly confrontational first sentence to the blurb.  However, instead of launching into postmodernist nonsense, I found it refreshing that the ingredients list told you specifics about the hops (Pilgrim, Nuggett, Cascade, Centennial) and the malt.  I recall that the summaries on the beer list in Porterhouse Bars were similarly informative.  Given that The Porterhouse is and has been at the forefront of expanding Irish consumers’ beer horizons, this would seem to be a useful and admirable way to do so.

Opening the ringpull cap, the beer poured on the orangey side of pale with a decent amount of carbonation and a thin head.  It had a nice piney malty smell like you might expect of an American pale ale.  Kate noted strawberry on the nose before me, which then gave way to a slight alcohol smell.

The taste had a definite malty raspberry hint to it.  It was really quite fizzy on the tongue, but had some oilyness. In the aftertaste the raspberry flavour gave way to an ultimate bitterness, but always with a slightly alkaline taste.

A few of the ratings on Ratebeer reckon the beer overplays its hand with the name “Hop Head”, and it’s fair to say that whilst it’s quite bitter, it pales (no pun intended) in comparison to some of the more extreme American examples.  Nonetheless it seems to be quite well liked and deservedly so.  This is a very enjoyable American-style pale ale that I would definitely have again.

It also demonstrated to me that The Porterhouse is able to produce some great beers outside the stouts and porters I’d already been impressed with, particularly their Oyster Stout and Wrassler. 

Irish Beer: The Church, The Long Hall, & McDaid’s, Dublin

As my last few posts demonstrate, I was pretty impressed with the state of the Irish craft beer scene.  There are some interesting beers and great bars to be found if you know where to go.  In that respect, you could do worse than checking out the directories on Beoir.

However, it’s probably fair to say that Irish craft beer is still something that is either fortuitously stumbled upon or actively sought out.  You could easily visit the Republic of Ireland and have no inkling of the existence of native craft beer, and most visitors almost certainly just sink a few pints of Guinness and come away with a view of Irish beer with is positive but monolithic.  More specifically, an immovable black monolith with a shiny gold harp in the middle, three quarters of the way up.

Which brings us on to the subject of this post, which is basically that there are some very nice bars in Dublin which haven’t yet bought in to craft beer, even if they are part of the tourist trail.  The first one we visited was The Church, an interesting large bar and restaurant in what used to be St Mary’s Church Of Ireland on Mary Street, close to the busy shopping area around Henry Street.

The Church has a considerable history, including being the place where Wolfe Tone (a Protestant and a rebel) was baptised and Arthur Guinness (a Protestant and a Unionist) was married.  A bust of Arthur Guinness sits at the end of the bar, one of a number of interesting features including the organ pipes on the wall and a pleasant stained glass window.  A bright, spacious and bustling venue, I can see that The Church would be an interesting and unusual place to come for lunch, Guinness or a cocktail.

A more traditional pub, but one that is no less spectacular, is The Long Hall.  It has a wonderfully preserved interior, with a lot of decorative dark wood, elaborate light fittings and mirrors.  On the afternoon we visited they were polishing the fittings with Brasso and the air was quite potent with the fumes.  At the end of the bar a wooden archway suspends a clock above your head as you walk into the back room.  I suppose it would have separated the equivalent of the public bar and the lounge bar or dining room back in the day.  We stopped at the bar briefly for a Beamish and quietly enjoyed the surroundings.

McDaid’s is another traditional Victorian pub.  Just off Grafton Street, I remembered the distinctive and colourful frontage from when I visited Dublin as a child.  Nowadays a statue of Phil Lynott stands opposite it, a man who (with Whiskey In The Jar) did a fine job of exploiting Irish tradition and at the same time reinventing it.

Inside, McDaid’s conforms to all my own prejudices about what a Dublin pub should look like, with more dark wood, wooden floors, decorative tiles, mirrors and leather benches, and an incredibly high ceiling for who knows what reason.  Perhaps a lower ceiling would have turned the place into a box of smoke.  The natural light from the huge windows falls attractively into this setting.

Although it would appear almost every Dublin pub of any age purports to have some literary connection or other, McDaids claims an exceptionally illustrious heritage, with a clientele which included Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and J.P. Donleavy, amongst others. 

You probably won’t find a pint of Galway Hooker in any of these pubs.  You certainly won’t find a working handpump.  I didn’t even notice any Irish craft beer in bottles, although I might just have missed them.  However, they’re definitely all worth a visit nonetheless, for a pint of Guinness or a glass of John Powers, whilst you let yourself forget how much is history rather than nostalgia, marketing or myth.

Irish Beer: Against The Grain, Dublin

April 11, 2011 2 comments

After The Bull & Castle, the second pub we visited on the recommendation of The Beer Nut was Against The Grain. We’d been out to the seaside at Dun Laioghaire on a cool, sunny spring weekday afternoon and on our return to Dublin were in the mood for a pint. From Pearse Station we walked West, stopping briefly to admire the selection in the Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dawson Street, before crossing St Stephen’s Green and ending up on Wexford Street.

Against The Grain is a relatively new pub which is part of the same chain as The Oslo, The Cottage and The Salt House in Galway. The Oslo is also a brewpub and produces two “Galway Bay” beers, a lager and an ale.

The pub itself has a pleasant frontage and an uncluttered interior. When we went in there was no-one but the barman about, so we sat at the bar and he was happy to chat about beer, on which subject he clearly knew his stuff.  The selection of keg and bottled beers was excellent, with quite a few imported craft beers. After a good bit of umming and ahhing I decided on a bottle of O’Hara’s Leann Folláin, a nice full-bodied 6% stout from Carlow Brewing Company. It was a good muscular stout, with a lovely coffee-coloured head and a roasted dark chocolate bitterness.

Kate tried their own Galway Bay Ale, which had a bit of a bready smell and a fairly uninteresting brown beer taste. She also tried the Trouble Brewing Ór, a golden ale. This had an unusual, rich, very sweet orange/mandarin smell. There was definitely a lot of orange in the taste as well, which reminded me of sticky orange Calippo lollipops.

Unfortunately we had to head on and meet someone before the pub presumably started to get livelier with the after-work crowd, but I was again impressed to see such a good representation of both Irish and imported craft beer in a nice welcoming setting.  Again, thanks to The Beer Nut for the recommendation, which I’m happy to pass on to you lot.

Irish Beer: The Bull & Castle, Christchurch, Dublin

April 10, 2011 8 comments

Beyond The Porterhouse, I had very little idea of where to find craft beer in Dublin. Fortunately Irish beer blogger laureate The Beer Nut was a great help, suggesting over Twitter that I try The Bull & Castle, Against The Grain and L. Mulligan Grocer. Although unfortunately we didn’t make it to the last one, we did visit the first two.

The Bull & Castle is by Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, a short walk from Temple Bar. It has a beer hall upstairs and a restaurant downstairs, both with a comprehensive selection of Irish craft beer. The furniture upstairs has something of a gothic arch theme running through it, reflecting the cathedral over the road.

We sat at the bar upstairs and tried a few of the different beers. Castle Red was an “Irish Red” in the vein of Smithwicks. As such it was relatively sweet and malty and had next to no hoppiness. Franciscan Well Rebel Lager was good enough for a pilsner but that was about all there was to it.

Metalman Pale Ale was more interesting. A new beer from a new brewing company (although actually made at the White Gypsy brewery) it had a fresh citrus bitterness that to me seemed to include a bit of Burton sulphur.

The Bull & Castle is owned by FXB, a chain of steakhouse restaurants around Dublin that use meat from their own farm in County Offally. Kate and I took a table downstairs and both enjoyed really excellent medium rare ribeye steaks with champ and a delicious surf-and-turf side of prawns.

With dinner I had a bottle of O’Hara’s Irish Pale Ale by the Carlow Brewing Company, who do a lot of bottled beers and produce the Irish Stout for Marks & Spencer. Their IPA had a nice light flavour and a subtle, slightly floral, oily bitterness.

I’ve made myself incredibly hungry and thirsty just writing this. Many thanks to The Beer Nut for the tip-off. Based on our experience, I’d definitely recommend the Bull & Castle to anyone visiting Dublin for a winning combination of craft Irish beer and good eats.

Irish Beer: The Porterhouse, Temple Bar, Dublin

April 8, 2011 4 comments

I mentioned in a recent post about this visit to Ireland that Irish craft beer had seen something of a renaissance in recent years, but that it appeared to me that the character of that resurgence, in terms of style (emphasis on stouts and “red” ales) and method of dispense (primarily keg and bottle), appeared to be strongly influenced by the unique conditions of Irish beer culture.

It further occurs to me that if Irish craft brewers want to export to consumers in the United States, they might consider it best to concentrate on those methods of dispense (with keg dominating US craft beer to a much greater degree than in the UK) and to focus on styles associated with Irish “tradition”.

The Irish Times article I mentioned in that post gives a good precis of The Porterhouse, which has grown since 1989 to comprise a chain of four pubs in Ireland (three in Dublin; one in Bray) and international outlets including Covent Garden, London; a temporary one at the Shanghai Expo in 2010; and soon a new pub in the financial district of New York.

Their brewing operation started on the premises in Temple Bar and now claims to be the largest Irish-owned brewery in Ireland (Guinness now being owned by Diageo). In fact, their expansion and influence is such that Irish Times article attributes the resurgence of Irish craft breweries to former finance minister (and recently departed Taoiseach) Brian Cowen introducing “a lower rate of duty for small breweries, largely due to pressure from the Porterhouse“.

The Porterhouse on Temple Bar has a nice interior with lots of natural light and exposed wood. Most of the seating are high stools and benches and old bottles are displayed behind glass. It’s welcoming and combines the modern with the traditional well, and doesn’t try to compete for the “Irish theme pub” crown, which seems to dominate most of Temple Bar.

We were lucky enough to visit during a festival of Irish craft beers, so there was a good range of craft beers from other breweries in the Republic and the North on keg and bottle. These included Messrs Maguire (a brewpub on the Liffey next to O’Connell Bridge); Trouble Brewing; Franciscan Well; Galway Hooker; and bottles from Northern breweries including Clanconnel and Inishmacsaint. Incidentally, without having looked terribly hard, I’ve yet to find Clanconnel or Inishmacsaint beers for sale in Northern Ireland.

I therefore was interested to try a bottle of Inishmacsaint White Island Wheat Beer. It had a lovely label and seemed to be a perfectly nice example of a style that I tend to find a bit dull. However I would note that wheat beer seems, in the form of Erdinger and others, to be reasonably widely available in the North at least, and I speculate that it might a growing style for Irish consumers.

The Messrs Maguire beer I had (which I think was their brown ale), was a deep dark ruby, with a pleasant, dry, liquorice bitterness.  Franciscan Well Purgatory Pale Ale on keg had a nice crystal malt taste and a satisfying hoppy bitterness. However for me Porterhouse’s own beers were the stars of the show.

Porterhouse Plain Porter had a nice creamy head, light smell and a good roasted to chocolate taste. Certainly it was enough to entertain and enlighten a confused Guinness drinker who’d wandered in off the street. The Porterhouse Oyster Stout was really superb. Made with actual Carlingford Lough oysters shucked into the brew, it had a bracing sea air smell and a wonderful mellow, salty, soy-like sweetness that I’d love to try with some fresh oysters to accompany it.

However, for both Kate and me the favourite was the Porterhouse Wrasslers XXXX Stout. Allegedly based on a recipe used by Deasy’s of West Cork in the early part of the last century (“Clonakilty Wrastler”) which was supposedly Michael Collins’ favourite, it even features a picture of Collins on the label. It is apparently made with Galena, Nugget and East Kent Goldings hops, but given that Galena and Nugget hops are US varieties that didn’t exist before 1968 and 1983 respectively, I would query the claim.

Regardless of the authenticity of the recipe, on keg Wrasslers is surprisingly and exhilaratingly bitter, but with a very nice balance. What’s even more surprising is that it’s only 5%, although the complex bitterness is really too pronounced to gulp this down as a session beer, and you wouldn’t do it justice anyway.

Black IPAs are very trendy these days, but this well-hopped stout may well become one of my favourite beers, if ever I’m able to find any in England. Perhaps a trip to Covent Garden is in order?

Irish Beer: Guinness Gives You Mid-Strength; Mulligans Of Poolbeg Street

April 6, 2011 1 comment

On our last day in Ireland, Kate and I went to see the Book Of Kells (the main problem with which, as an exhibit, is that it’s a book, and it’s therefore only open at one place at any one time), following which we fancied a final pint in a traditional Dublin pub before catching the bus to the airport.

We decided on Mulligan’s on Poolbeg Street, a dark, slightly bare looking pub with horse racing on the TV above the bar.  The Dorling Kindersley Guide To Ireland made the bold assertion that it was generally regarded amongst locals as pouring the best pint of Guinness in the city.

Now, given Guinness’ method of dispense, I am aware that there is actually likely to be bugger all difference from pub to pub.  It’s not hard to keep and in my experience is actually pretty consistent even in England, if you ignore all that “Guinness doesn’t travel” business.

Over the course of four days in Ireland I had naturally consumed Guinness in a number of different pubs: Moran’s Oyster Cottage in Kilcolgan; O’Riardins in Oranmore; McDaid’s off Grafton Street.  Each of them were good and, for the avoidance of doubt, none had a frigging shamrock drawn on the head.

However I had noticed one variation: in around half of the places I had it, the Guinness had a slightly alcoholic kick in the back end of the aftertaste.  I hadn’t noticed this before but Kate recognised it as well.  I’m not sure why it would be present in some places but not others, and thought it might be related to different batches, different ages of beer or perhaps a slightly quicker turnover.  In any case, I quite enjoyed the slightly boozier hit.

The Guinness we had in Mulligan’s didn’t have the alcohol aftertaste, and went perfectly well with a packet of cheese and onion crisps.  However they also had a variation on Guinness that I hadn’t tried before: Guinness Mid-Strength, a 2.8% version of draft Guinness, which is normally 4.2%.

When we ordered a half for a side-by-side comparison, the barman said that he didn’t think it tasted any different.  He wasn’t far off.  Guinness doesn’t smell or taste of very much relative to bolder stouts and porters, so there wasn’t much of a loss in the taste department.  However, there was very slightly more watery mouthfeel.  All-in-all though, I think that any normal drinker, including myself, probably wouldn’t notice it was a different drink to normal Guinness if handed a cold pint in the pub.  Erm, unless it said “Guinness Mid-Strength” on the glass.

It seems to me that a lot of thought has gone into making a beer that tastes as near as possible to normal Guinness but 1.3% less.  It does beg the question as to why they bothered: were people really clamouring for a weaker Guinness?  I know in some quarters it has a reputation for being a stronger beer than it actually is, but at around 4.1% it’s within most people’s definition of a session beer.

It seems that Diageo have been trialling Guinness Mid-Strength for five years now, and It’s being aimed at a market that want to drink during the week, for instance watching the football, but without suffering the “consequences”.  I’m not convinced that further tinkering so close to a core brand that makes much of its long history, tradition and authenticity is the most sensible thing to do, nomatter how much that beer has actually been tweaked, altered and the method of dispense completely overhauled over the years.

With beer duty being halved in the UK for drinks of 2.8% or less produced by large brewers (small brewers don’t get any additional benefit), there’s more incentive than ever for Diageo to attempt to launch Guinness Mid-Strength in the UK.  However, if the experience in Ireland is anything to go by, the saving on duty will go straight into Diageo’s profits and won’t be reflected in the price.

See this post for my reviews of a couple of more muscular versions of Guinness, which I hope survive the rise in beer duty for “superstrength” beers.

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