There are a handful of beer destinations on my bucket list and last week I was lucky enough to cross Ireland off that list. We spent most of the trip in the rural west coast, but also made sure to spend some time in the cities of Galway and Dublin. That juxtaposition of rural and urban, of traditional and modern, is what Ireland is all about and it carries all the way through their beer.
After being awake for about 30 hours that consisted of flying from Chicago to Dublin and driving from Dublin to the Galway Bay on some of the most narrow and trecherous roads I’ve ever seen, I was ready for my first pint. Fortunately, the cottage we rented was within stumbling distance down a tiny country road of a restaurant-bar called Linnane’s Lobster Bar. The bar stood mostly alone on the stony coast known as The Flaggy Shore with an excellent view of Galway Bay. Cows grazed in a brilliantly green pasture across the street next to an ancient stone building I dubbed Cow Castle. The air was filled with the smell of salty sea water and peat smoke from the cottage chimmneys. In short, the perfect setting for my first Guinness in Ireland.
I don’t know what I was expecting from it. A few years ago I had a few pints of Guinness in Cedar Falls, Iowa with a man from Ennis and he claimed our Guinness is “shite”. I know beer is always best at the source; my experience of having Hefeweizen in Munich opened my eyes to how much character beer loses when crossing the Atlantic. So it was with eager trepidation that I took my first sip of Guinness. No fireworks, no life changing experience, just a solid dry stout with maybe a little more chocolate and a little less acid than the Guinness I’ve had at home. With that being said, at that moment in that location, I wouldn’t have picked any other beer. It was perfect.
Since Linnane’s was somehow the only pub within miles of our cottage, we had to quickly make a beer run to the nearest grocery store. Liquor stores seemed completely absent in the villages near our cottage but they had plenty of small to mid-sized grocery stores. The beer selection is 90% pint cans and 99% below 4.5% ABV. Guinness Draught, Smithwicks, Carlsberg, and whatever cider the store preferred made up most of the selection. There were a few odd bottles of British ales and a surprising representation of Budweiser and Coors (sorry Miller). Most places we visited followed this pattern, although at the bigger stores you could find Guinness Extra and Foreign Extra, the former in cans and the latter in bottles. Prices are a little higher than what we’d see in the US with 4-packs going for 7 EUR (9.3 USD). Cans could be yanked out of their packs and bought individually for all brands everywhere we went, which is great for us adventerous brewers.
Smithwicks is a bit lighter there, both in color and ABV. 3.8% ABV and think of a slightly dark APA for apperance rather than actually being a red ale. It seems to finish fermenting a bit higher as the US version as well to the point of coming off sweet and underattenuated. I’d probably be full after two pints but I didn’t put that to the test. Maybe because Smithwicks preceeded it, but Bass seemed drier and hoppier than the examples we find here. I can’t be bothered with it in the US, but I could see it being a staple in Ireland. I won’t cover everything I had, but rest assured there’s enough variety to keep any of us busy and happy.
There is a disappointingly low amount of craft (ie small, independant breweries) beer in stores and in pubs. Fortunately, there was a brew pub about a 15 minute drive from our cottage in the village of Lisdoonvarna. Beyond the aptly named Roadside Tavern brewpub, the village is known for matchmaking festivals that have reported a shortage of male participants recently. The pub is maybe 30′ by 10′ inside and the walls are littered with so much dusty memorabilia that it seems even smaller. Their offerings were a “Gold”, a “Red”, and a “Black”. So I had a half pint of each. The Golden was in fact colored gold, and had a strong minerally, sulfury character with a super dry finish. I’m not sure if it was a lager fermented warm or an ale lagered. It was my least favorite of the three. The Red was truly colored red, brilliantly clear with a tight head. That mineral character worked there and had an excellent caramel flavor with a hint of smoky phenols. The Black was almost a rauchbier in its smokiness but had a nice malty roundness that made it quite sessionable. When I complemented the publican on the beers he stated that “a boy” comes in once a week to brew it and proudly proclaimed that the beers had “no additives”. That last bit seems very important there – from the grocery to the pub, goods are declared to be organic and additive free.
I didn’t run into craft beer again until the second to last night in country at Temple Bar in Dublin. We found a pub with O’Hara’s complete portfolio in bottles. Their Leann Follain was excellent, but I was more interested in the pub’s rare whiskey selection to spend too much time investigating O’Hara. Finally, at the last pub we visited, Arthur’s Pub outside St. James Gate, there was a decent selection of Irish craft (Trouble Brewing and MetalMan) and US craft (Founders, Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada, Goose Island). The Americans were the only ones to break the 4.5% ABV barrier.
If you do visit Guinness someday, plan plenty of time for the Guinness tour. The 16 EUR ticket seems steep, but you can spend all day exploring that beer Disneyland. I’ve never seen such a well done and approachable explanation of brewing and its ingredients. The “Guinness Experience” is a 7 story indoors amusement park tribute to brewing and beer. It’s basic enough that none of us MUGZers would learn much at all beyond the history of Guinness and the brewery. Kudos to them for delivering the message in the way they do though. There thousands of people there that day. It was front-to-back, shoulder-to-shoulder people the whole time. The class on properly tasting a beer in a sterile white sensory deprivation(?) lab was a treat. The “Gravity Lounge” – the famous 7th story bar that overlooks Dublin was busy enough to warrant a 20 minute wait for our free pint. Having it fresh at two days old from packaging at the brewery, and then having it when I got back home, I can say that it does an excellent job crossing the Atlantic.
Ireland’s craft beer scene has a long way to go before he reaches US levels, but I’m not entirely sure they want to reach that level. The fact that every single sign is printed in Irish first and then English, despite estimates that less than 2% of the population speaks fluent Irish is proof that its a country that is proud of its heritage. And when it comes to beer, stout and porter is its heritage. You can’t help but fall in love with their beer either.
One night, a few pints in at Linnane’s, I asked a local if he’d ever tried Porterhouse’s Oyster Stout, which the bar had advertised on a shelf. He said that he’d come in there every night for years and never had the urge to try it. I asked him why he wasn’t curious how it tasted. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said “It’s all about the beer in front of you, isn’t it?”. Wiser words have never been spoken.