Caught in a “round” system, drinkers can either find unwanted pints of beer stacking up in front of them like a firing squad, or sit around resentfully staring at their empty glass as the one whose turn it is next nurses their beer. The former always used to happen between a group of us at a rural pub in County Antrim called The Wayside, so that the unstarted pints stacked in front of the slower drinkers at the end of the evening were described as a “Wayside Pile-up”.
The rules of the round can be more complicated and applied more restrictively than a newcomer might think. “Rules are rules”, say people with no imagination. Sometimes exceptions and “sitting out” may not be permitted: you may not refuse my generosity nor deny me yours.
There was a particularly strict attitude in certain pubs in my homeland, where I was once told a story of a visiting Englishman who didn’t automatically get a full round, but instead would ask each of his colleagues if they fancied another one. Quiet offence was initially taken, but he was not to blame – as it was explained to me by the self-appointed pub anthropologist – that was just what English people did.
The Edwardian equivalent of the Wayside Pile-up was regarded as nothing less than a threat to national efficiency and, therefore, wartime security. Rounds were banned by “No-Treating” provisions made under the Defence Of The Realm Act in 1915 and revoked on 4 June 1919 (“and it is generally expected that this date will be made an annual, public holiday in Scotland” – Punch). Lloyd George attributed an initial reduction in drunkenness convictions to the effect of the Order.
There’s a great example of the application of the No-Treating Order in a 1916 newspaper article here, where a sailor buying a round of drinks and the Cardiff landlord he bought it from were both prosecuted. The landlord’s silk raised an interesting argument in his defence:
Mr Lewis Thomas K.C., for the landlord, said that the real reason for the order was to hit the person treating, and the person who was treated. Supposing, said counsel, he and his friend, Mr. Whitely (appearing with him), before going into a hotel formed a joint-stock company and contributed 6d. each, and he went in and paid for two bottles of Bass. (Laughter.) If then his friend drank one there would be no offence.
The Lord Chief Justice: You don’t say really that, when going in to take refreshments, you form a joint-stock company in which you each contribute half of what is going to be spent?
Mr Thomas: It depends on the confidence you have in each other.
The Glasgow Herald reported in March 1944 on calls from the Moderator of the Church of Scotland for a No-Treating Order to be brought in during World War 2:
Many attempts, he said, had been made to get the Government to pass such an order, but so far without result. He for one thought it was too soon yet to give up the battle – and he believed it was also in the mind of the Church he represented – to bring further pressure to bear on the Government in this matter. There was no doubt that inebriation, immorality, and the incidence of venereal disease were very closely related to each other, and that it was difficult to deal with those problems separately.
The last point reveals what appears to be behind many for the calls to ban “treating” in 1944: a desire to prevent men buying women drinks in an attempt to arouse their affections, rather than simply to prevent groups of workers “getting a round in”. The same point was raised by Viscountess Astor in the House of Commons in the same month:
Does not the right hon. Gentleman consider that something ought to be done to relieve the anxiety of people who are deeply worried about the treating of young girls in public houses? Would not a no-treating order help in this very important matter?
As far as I’m aware, the “round” currently escapes any blame in the ongoing debate about alcohol and public health, as the arguments are generally restricted to pricing, duty, measures, ABV and age. Perhaps it is because pubs are now thought of as a preferable, supervised drinking environment.
Or perhaps it is acknowledged that the system is one of those long-standing British traditions born of an obsession with rules and fair play, along with cricket, grammatical pedantry, writing outraged letters to broadsheet newspapers and queuing. Furthermore, the general ability of men to buy women drinks doesn’t just spread VD, but rather is pretty much essential for the British to procreate at all.
Belfast seems a much-changed place from when I was 18, but then so are most places since 1998. When I’m back, roughly twice a year, I still get the impression that there’s a long way to go in terms of beer in most of the pubs. Cask ale is still rarer than hen’s teeth and I’ve yet to see a Trappist in town.
But I need to explore much of the new Belfast more. Although many of the entries in the Good Beer Guide for Northern Ireland seem to be JD Wetherspoons (which indicates the work JDW does to promote and supply cask even where it isn’t commonly accepted) there are a few – The John Hewitt; Molly’s Yard – that I always mean to explore but never get to.
However, over Christmas I did get to Bittle’s Bar, a wedge shaped corner pub in an older building on the edge of the new Victoria Centre. It’s a pleasant little bar with walls covered in slightly absurd paintings of Northern Irish faces: one depicts Ian Paisley with his arm around Gerry Adams whilst Van Morrison, George Best and Alex Higgins look on.
No cask on the bar, but there was keg Whitewater Copperhead, a nice refreshing pale ale I’ve enjoyed from the bottle. I had a bottle of Pig Island Pale by Ards Brewing Co, a new brewery I recognised from a Beers I’ve Known post of a few months before.
The 4.2% beer was bottle conditioned and had a nice fresh hop aroma, which I really didn’t expect from a Northern Irish beer. It was a satisfyingly bitter pale ale with a slightly orangey aftertaste; very drinkable and probably excellent with seafood. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Ards next time I’m back.
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?
I’m off to the National Winter Ales Festival this morning, so just a quick note to say thanks to Grace from Strangford Lough Brewing Company for sending me through these three beers for review.
After Christmas I grumbled in a fairly mean-spirited way about a bottle of their St Patrick’s Best which I’d bought out of date and I thought tasted a bit dodgy. Although this was entirely my fault and that of the shop, Grace got in touch to offer to send me a few more beers for review.
I’m looking forward to trying these but in the meantime I just thought a thank-you was in order. It’s nice to see they’re keeping an eye on what people online think of their beer and they’d be both generous and confident enough in the standard of their beers to give me another shot.
After the disappointment of the Strangford Lough and College Green brewery bottles – beers that had been difficult to find but uninspiring to drink, although in one case probably due to the expiry date – it was good to come back to Whitewater Brewery. Whitewater bottled beers are increasingly easy to get hold of where I live in County Antrim: they’re in the big supermarkets as well as the better off licences. This is impressive in Northern Ireland.
Whitewater’s been going since 1996 and is based in Kilkeel in South Down. Although three of their beers start with the word “Belfast”, in Northern Irish terms that’s a fair distance from the capital. However, they do seem to make reference to using yeast from an/the old Belfast Brewery.
On New Year’s Eve Kate and I decided to have a quiet night in, cook a nice dinner of salsa and garlic chicken and enjoy these beers in front of a real fire.
Whitewater Brewery Belfast Lager (4.5%)
The label says “crisp and full flavoured, this refreshing continental-style premium lager is brewed with the finest Saaz hops giving a beer rich in aroma and taste“. It poured a light golden colour with a white head that dispersed quickly. The smell was a malty lager one with a little sweet bubblegum. It had a satisfying clean refreshing taste with a crisp lemongrass bitterness.
My brother enjoyed this beer a lot over Christmas and it could easily win over lager drinkers generally to local craft beer. A very good crossover beer that doesn’t dumb down.
Whitewater Brewery Belfast Ale (4.5%)
“A dark amber ale with a wonderful rich malt flavour and earthy aroma, brewed with three different hop varieties creating a distinctive bitterness and smooth finish”.
I had originally considered this the least interesting of Whitewater’s beers. The appearance and taste is of caramel. It has a slight sweet malty bitterness with a subtle fresh hoppiness. It reminds me of Smithwicks with a bit more malty body and a more satisfactory amount of hops. Again, this seems like a clever and competent improvement on a style that is already reasonably familiar to a fairly inexperienced market.
Whitewater Brewery Belfast Black (4.2%)
Now if there’s a style Northern Irish beer drinkers are familiar with, it’s stout. This stout has a roasted smell which carries a smokiness through into the dry taste. It’s not a very powerfully tasting stout, less viscous and sweet than stronger examples. However it’s a more interesting drink than Guinness Original at the same ABV and that seems to be what it’s aiming for.
Whitewater Brewery Clotworthy Dobbin (5.0%)
“Clotworthy Dobbin was an accomplished Belfast brewer making the finest of ales back in the early 1800s. Clotworthy’s tradition continues today in the heart of Ireland’s famous Mountains of Mourne at the Whitewater Brewery … Made using the finest natural ingredients taken from the Mountains of Mourne and yeast from the Old Belfast Brewery itself, this wonderful russet coloured ale with its signature fruity aroma would surely be worthy of Clotworthy himself.”
There’s only one Northern Irish beer in 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die and Clotworthy is the man himself. It pours a deep reddish brown with a creamy yellow head. It smells of rum and raisins and tastes of a rich, malty syrupy spiciness, with a burnt sugar bitterness. It’s not as thick and spicy as a Theakston’s Old Peculier (which is slightly stronger), but it’s a very good winter beer. I strongly recommend having it with a homemade mince pie and maybe a bit of mature Coleraine Cheddar.
It really is very heartening to find a brewery in Northern Ireland which appears (from the availability) to be succeeding on the basis of a solid range of traditional-style beers, all of which are as good or better than the comparable products of the big boys. It’s only a shame that, due to the very limited availability of cask generally in Northern Ireland and near where my parents live in particular, I’ve not had time to hunt out and try more of their cask beers, which also look interesting and branch out into less traditional styles.
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.
Ballyclare, Northern Ireland in the 1990s was not the best place in the world to fall in love with good beer. Not that there weren’t any pubs. There were, and more than there are now. Around the Square alone there were six. However, for me there were a number of problems with the ones we had.
Firstly, it was very, very difficult for me to get served. I was young for my year at school and so I was under 18 until a month before I left and went to university. This was due to a diabolical masterplan my mother had concocted to give her the option of holding me back a year to resit the 11-plus if I failed it first time round. Fortunately I passed and went to the nice state grammar school with the nice teachers and the annual Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, so the real world was held at bay for another seven years.
As a result, I was the youngest of my friends, but this problem was compounded as I also looked young for my age. Clive Anderson once said something like, “I looked 14 until my mid-20s, at which point I started to look 40.” I had a very similar experience, so the big hairy full-time carpenter/part-time bouncer on the door of The Grange Bar wasn’t in any way convinced.
Secondly, most of the pubs were a bit rough. I was young, fat, sheltered, middle class and, to be completely honest, simply too scared to try my luck at getting served in most of them. Largely this terror was instilled without ever having been in them, such was their reputation. They had a symbiotic relationship with folk selling duty-free cigarettes, the bookies, the flute bands and occasionally the local paramilitaries (the last two groups not necessarily being entirely mutually exclusive).
But, peeking through the glass of the six around the Square (metaphorically, as largely this wasn’t possible or would have at best been frowned upon) this was how it seemed:
- The Comrades Club definitely looked like a rough pub from the outside. It was and remains one of those one-storey flat-roofed bunkers of a place, tied to the local Irish League football club and with grills over the windows.
- The Farmer’s Inn (latterly Henry’s) was reportedly run by, erm, not sure how to put this… people who were neither farmers nor landscape gardeners but might well have an alternative use for fertiliser. That was the rumour in any event. It closed ages ago and may since have re-opened without a licence as a café.
- I don’t think that The Red Hand Bar was ever actually run by the paramilitaries, but… let’s just say that it was not a name that encouraged multiculturalism and integrated drinking from all sections of society. It was bought up by a former boss of mine who owns the Grange, who knocked it down and rebuilt it in the 21st century as a genuinely good off-licence that now even sells a small selection of bottled ale.
- The Square Bar was clearly for farmers: just beside the entrance to the livestock market, on summer weekdays it always seemed to have tractors and wrinkled, soil-encrusted men sitting smoking in flat caps and wellies outside. I can only assume it smelled of dried manure inside. The last time I was in Ballyclare it had been bought up by a local tee-total Christian businessman and closed down. The market’s gone now too, so maybe it was inevitable that the pub would die as well.
- The Grange, as mentioned above, I couldn’t get through the door of. In retrospect, this was probably indicative of a responsible pub.
- The Ballyboe, however, not only tolerated a bit of underage drinking, but was also a pretty good pub. It burned down in suspicious circumstances in 2008 (pictured). I did some of my underage drinking in there and it was fine, and relatively safe, and the selection of beer was terrible.
And this is the real issue: when I got into the bloody places, there was bugger all worth drinking. In the 1980s and 1990s there was, to my knowledge, absolutely no real ale culture in Northern Ireland. To be more specific, there was no real ale and less culture (with the obvious exception of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta).
I’ll pick this up again soon.