Curious & Thirsty: Irish Beer
by Tim Dohms, author of syndicated column Beergarden
The last ten years have been an exciting time for beer enthusiasts. As archaic production restrictions are repealed and the craft beer market continues to grow, more and more people are being exposed to a world of possibilities greater than the watery macro beers of the past. Opening up one’s palate to the myriad of ales and lagers starts a domino effect of sorts. Discovering new and exciting flavors, textures and styles speaks to the wanderlust and the conquering tendencies within us all. “Now that I’ve tried these… what’s next? What else you got?”
If you’re like me and you live in a modestly-populated city, chances are you’ve got access to a fairly decent selection of beer. If you’re still like me you probably have a yearning to explore the wide world of beer. If you’re not like me, don’t worry… it probably means you’re a well-adjusted member of society who doesn’t need roller coasters and hours of Adlerian therapy to sweep away the blues. You wouldn’t want your hair to cowlick as horribly as mine does anyhow.
When I think of stereotypically beer-centric countries other than our own, my mind tends to wander to those notorious, infamous even, societies who spent centuries refining the art of brewing and, therefore, the art of partying and telling your best friend that you’re sorry for blacking his eye and hitting on his girlfriend in the pub the night before. The Czech Republic (more beer consumed per capita than anywhere else on Earth), Germany (wrote the law of beer making), Belgium (compelling argument to shave your head and become a monk) and England (Oi! ‘Urry up, wiv that pint, landlord! Got a footy match t’ get to!) all top my list of European beer Meccas. However, let’s not forget Ireland.
I’m a little baffled at times, though. Seems as if everybody wants to be Irish. Everybody, save members of the 700 Club and recent hip replacement surgery patients, straps on a plastic green hat and downs enough booze on St. Patrick’s Day to kill a Kodiak bear. And why? We don’t do this for any other ethnic group or country of origin. Is it the Irish are really that known for being heavy drinkers? Are their parties of higher quality than anyone else’s? Do we emulate Ireland because they’re better-looking than the average vodka-soaked Lithuanian? (Not a swipe at Lithuanians, so you know. I’m sure most Lithuanians are very pleasant and comely people. I’ll let you know if I ever end up in Lithuania.)
I’m curious if other countries wriggle into a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” t-shirt then proceed to spend the night slamming car bombs and jello shots.
Like I said, I’m baffled. Most don’t understand Irish history much less care that St. Patrick wasn’t from Ireland, didn’t drive snakes off the island… apparently his name wasn’t even Patrick! So what is it they’re celebrating? According to party decoration-advertising festooned aggressively in every bar in the land come March, it’s all about the Guinness.
Woah, hold on. Back up your potato cart there, James Joyce. I’ve had my fair share of that dark, silky stout, believe you me. But to suggest that Guinness as a beer is thoroughly representative of one nation is to suggest that Bud Light sums up the American beer culture to a red, white and blue “t.” No, truth be told, Ireland’s beer culture is rich, historical and, much like our craft brewing movement, branching out in all directions.
I do find it rather unfortunate that European countries steeped in brewing history have such a proliferation of beer production yet very little of it reaches American shores. Ireland’s not the only one; my above-mentioned short list of countries possesses hundreds of breweries whose efforts will probably never be imported to the US of A. Conversely, the hundreds of craft and micro breweries in America have very little likelihood of export to Europe. I’ll never see a bottle of Licher Pils in Alabama and Hans will never find Pliny the Elder in Heidelberg.
It does seem as if Ireland only cares to send Guinness our way, doesn’t it? Sure, there’s Harp (part of the Guinness family now), Smithwicks (same here) and even the slightly rarer Beamish. All are still fine beers but there’s so much better to be had. Seeing as how almost 40% of the world’s Guinness is actually made in Africa these days, I’d like to concentrate on the real deal coming out of the Island of Saints and Scholars.
With all the Guinness hype one might get the impression that stout rules supreme but it’s actually lager beer that accounts for up to 63% of Irish beer production and consumption. How is it, then, that stout is usually recognized as the “official” beer of Ireland? My guess is that stout is more memorable due to the dark roasted malt that provides an incredible depth of flavor.
Not all stout is created the same. Where the eponymous Guinness is appreciated for its distinctive burnt tang and notes of smoke and caramel, Murphy’s Irish Stout offers up sweet chocolate and roast coffee on the nose while rich flavors of mocha, toasted biscuit and chocolaty malt. As black as a cavern at midnight, Murphy’s has hardly any carbonation at all making it silky and milky smooth.
Other high-output breweries of note one may come across in larger beer distribution markets are Kinsale (yet another Guinness family member) for their atypical yet sessionable lager and Kilkenny with its nutty, toffee-ish cream ale. However, if you wish to have your hair blown back and your toes curling with delight, throw your arms open wide and welcome the next wave of Irish brewing.
I was naïve to think that most of European brewing remains stolidly anchored to their brewing traditions. Silly me was under the impression that it’s all dusty hops, mild bitters, low alcohol stouts and oh-so-few porters. As a friend put it to me upon a recent return from the United Kingdom, “Oh, no… they’re just as creative with beer as we are now. Better, in some cases!”
Consider the curiously-named Galway Hooker Brewery with their buttery, citrusy Irish Pale Ale and their Dark Wheat showing off spicy fruit and a hint of chocolate. The beer is certainly no date with a Gaelic lady of the night. In fact, the name refers to a type of boat in Galway Bay.
Another brewery with a great name, Trouble Brewing in County Kildare has a slightly non-traditional porter called Dark Arts that’s more caramel, bourbon barrel vanilla and coffee than most of its distant relatives in Jolly ol’ England. Be sure to search out the pleasantly off kilter Or pale ale and its spiced apple and butterscotch. Crisp carbonation with its unusual flavor will have you thinking it’s some weird cousin to cider.
Clanconnel checks in from North Ireland with their amazingly carbonated and fully sessionable Weavers Gold ale; full of citrus and biscuity malts. They use the name McGrath’s for both their red ale and dry stout; the former nicely balanced between caramel malt and hop bitterness, the latter a study in smoke, earth, dried dark fruits and a touch of brown sugar.
Brew Eyed and Eight Degrees Breweries both draw honorable mentions as well. Carlow Brewery in, well, County Carlow (not to be confused with Counting Crows) is responsible for eleven different beers including the O’Hara’s line. Abundant, yes, but their entire catalog is in the traditional vein. Exceptional brews, nonetheless.
These days there are two Irish breweries synonymous with thoroughly modern beer making: Franciscan Well (a microbrewery in County Cork) and Porterhouse from Dublin. Voted “Best Microbrewery in Ireland,” Franciscan Well was built in 1998 on the site of an old Franciscan monastery’s water source. Seeing as how that well supplied the water those monks used to make beer, made perfect sense to name the new brewery after it. While not nearly as daring as Porterhouse, Franciscan Well goes out of their way to craft multiple beer styles beyond the muted range most other Irish producers attempt.
In addition to their lager, stout and red ales, they proudly offer a German style weizenbier, a Cascade hop American Pale Ale called Purgatory and their hoppy winter warmer selection Bell Ringer. This brings us to Porterhouse. In the course of one year they make twelve different beers not to be found anywhere else in the Emerald Isle. They draw as much from traditional beer as much as they do from modern American brewing. Cold-fermented American style lager, German pilsner and Altbier, Truffle Stout? What are these wackos up to?
Porterhouse happens to make the best beer I’ve ever tasted. A beer so complex, so dynamic and layered, so out there with its signature ingredient… I don’t see how anyone could ever not love this beer. Think what you will of shellfish, but I’m here to tell you Porterhouse Oyster Stout is hands down one amazing beer. Yes, there’s really oyster in the beer. No, it doesn’t taste like oysters. The squiggly little bi-valves do lend the stout an amazing savory quality amplifying the toasted grain. Scents of smoke, flint and sea salt air mingle with dark chocolate. An almost impossible mixture of hibiscus, slightly burnt biscuit and lemon tea barely conceals a briny finish that comes on like a whisper. With a silky slick texture and moderate alcohol by volume (4.8%), all of the above make the Oyster Stout one dangerously drinkable beverage. Simply stunning.
Without hyperbole, I mean it when I say I literally smelled this beer for ten minutes before I even took a sip the very first time I ever had one. I know, I know… what a weirdo! Who does that?
Whatever happened to that little throwaway fact about lager being the predominant style brewed in Ireland? Much of it is Heineken, Amstel Light, Harp and Coors Light. See why I made it a throwaway fact? Moving along. Ireland has much more to offer than stereotype when it comes to satisfying the beer drinker’s palate; more than just stout and more than just one style of stout. A valuable lesson to be learned for many situations: never judge anything by its image, always explore and find your own path. For good or bad, when you sample and experiment on your own — instead of kowtowing to an ad campaign — the results you end up with are yours and yours alone. There’s a big world of beer out there. Happy hunting.
Tim Dohms is a 20-year veteran of the service industry. At age 15 he discovered the beauty of good wine with good food in a dark restaurant on Italy’s Lake Como. Since that day he has made it his business to seek out as much enjoyment through eating and drinking as possible. It was while studying English in college that he discovered an ability to write and a sometimes sarcastic point of view. After stints working on college newspapers, literary reviews and friends’ “fanzines,” he took his English and Literature schooling and immediately pursued his dream of not using his degree at all, ending up washing dishes at a chain restaurant.
The years became more kind, and he now finds himself as the General Manager of Hopjacks Pizza Kitchen and Taproom in Mobile, Alabama. When he’s not on an Arthurian quest for the perfect ceviche, he finds time to write the weekly column, “Beergarden” in the Pensacola News Journal.