Northern Ireland hasn't been dealt the best of hands when it comes to beer. The dominance of Diageo and Bass meant that for years bar patrons had little to choose from between Harp and Tennents; Smithwicks and Bass. Things are slowly changing, however, with Kilkeel's Whitewater brewery leading the charge. Belfast Ale is the flagship, a red bitter which I found a bit rough round the edges. It's definitely complex, with hoppy bitterness and lots of fruit, but the bold flavours tend to compete with each other, making for an intense but confusing experience. Nevertheless, this is a conscientiously fashioned beer which hints of a time ages past when all beer tasted like this.
Moving up the ladder there's Clotworthy Dobbin, named after a legendary Belfast brewer, apparently. It's similar to Belfast Ale, but much more coherent. Bitter in the extreme, though smoother and altogether more rounded.
Still in Ulster, but far north and west of Kilkeel, there's a brewery on the Donegal island of Árainn Mhór. I had a chance to try their red ale Rua, which is a cloudy, bottle-conditioned Irish red, weighing in at a whopping 6% ABV. The result is an exceptionally bitter ale, full of green-tasting hops. After the initial shock, it's quite a pleasant, sippable beer. The other flavours -- fruit, candy, spice -- do come out from under the bitterness eventually, however there's room for a bit more craft and subtlety in this one, just like its counterparts from the east coast.