October in Europe. I call it the “secret month” because so few people seem to know how wonderful it is. The weather is perfect, there are festivals every-which-way and the tourists have largely gone home, making for a primo vacation compared to the overrated summer months.
I’m just back from two weeks in Ireland and could fill six pages with news on what to drink and where to drink it (with pictures), but a certain editor won’t let me. So here’s my “Best in Category” overview of Ireland’s beer scene.
Ireland probably is best known for its macrobrew beers — Guinness above all — on tap in nearly every pub, but I undertook a more challenging quest: to seek out the microbrews. Unlike in England, where most pubs now tend to pour one or two “guest beers” even if they’re owned by a macrobrewery, Irish pubs seem more segregated. A pub will pour either the big names like Guinness, Harp and Smithwick’s, or it will pour microbrews; I found very few pouring both and I learned that there are only about 20 microbreweries in all of Ireland.
The Carlow Brewing Company (County Carlow) was my winner in the “Best All-Around Microbrewery” category. They have one dedicated brewpub — Brewery Corner in Kilkenny — where tasting flights are available, and you can buy their bottled beers in shops around southeastern Ireland. They started brewing in 1996, which seems to have been the kickoff year for the Irish microbrew movement.
Carlow markets its beers under the “O’Hara’s” name, and their “O’Hara’s Leann Follain” Extra Irish Stout (6.0 percent ABV) tromped the competition in my “Best Stout” category. (It’s a contender for my “Best Beer Ever” award.) This Extra Stout is the most brilliant combination of coffee, chocolate and alcohol that you’re ever likely to find in one glass. It’s deep and rich and delicious, black as night with a creamy head. (Those of you who prefer light beers should know that one of my taster-helpers was smitten with O’Hara’s Natural Blonde — a European-style pilsner.)
J.W. Sweetman’s Pale Ale (4.5 percent ABV) won in my “Best Pale Ale” category because of its balanced malt and hop flavors. Both elements were clearly present and harmoniously blended. J.W. Sweetman’s pub sits on the River Liffey in Dublin, not far from Grafton Street; it also serves macrobrews and other breweries’ microbrews. Sweetman’s traces its history to the 1700s, although it has morphed hugely from its “extensive network of breweries” then to its location today.
Honorable Mention goes to the Metalman Brewing Company’s Pale Ale (4.3 percent ABV), brewed in Waterford. It was distinctly hoppy and I liked it a lot, but it seemed more like an American-style IPA (and yes, I know the “PA” in “IPA” stands for Pale Ale) so I felt that Sweetman’s better represented the Pale Ale style. Metalman has been brewing only since 2011, so it’s one to watch.
My “Best Red Ale” winner was the Porterhouse Brewing Company’s Porterhouse Red (4.2 percent ABV). Made from three types of malt and three hop varieties, it had good balance, fruit flavors and just enough roasted malt edge to give it bite. Porterhouse Red probably was one of the most food-friendly beers I tried, ideal for washing down a lamb-based Irish stew and mashed potatoes.
The Porterhouse Brewing Company was established in Dublin in 1996 and has brewpubs in Temple Bar (Dublin), as well as other Irish venues and one pub in New York. Their mission is to bring flavorful beer to a niche market of drinkers who don’t want “beer that tastes of very little.” Their Plain Porter won a gold medal in 2011 at the Burton-upon-Trent brewing competition (the world’s largest), but I personally didn’t find that it tasted of very much. Their Imperial Stout, on the other hand, which is matured for six months in whiskey casks, had knockout flavors.
Another Honorable Mention goes to Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale (4.3 percent ABV), first brewed in 1710 at the St. Francis Abbey and now managed by Guinness/Diageo. Mid-way in color between an ale and a porter, it’s ultra-smooth with predominantly malty flavors. It’s similar to Smithwick’s amber ale, and produced at Smithwick’s brewery (Kilkenny), but my taste buds judged Kilkenny had more outstanding flavors.
Lastly, winning the “Best Snooze” category: Guinness. Seriously, I may have preferred drinking the microbrews, but I slept like a lamb after some pints of the Irish legend. It’s the antidote to the shock of realizing you’ve paid $7 for one of those pints. Slainte!