"Welcome to Belfast International Airport," the old joke goes, "please set your watch back 300 years." My native Northern Ireland hasn't garnered the best reputation for progressiveness and liberality over the years. The old puritanical streak left by the Planters can still be felt in the many spotlessly pretty villages which curiously lack pubs. Sunday trading is still a relatively new phenomenon and looked upon sceptically by the hardcore saved. So it is with extra delight that I report on a beer festival I attended on Saturday in the little village of Hilden, in the east Ulster heartland just south of Belfast.
The Hilden Brewery has been quietly turning out cask ales since 1981, mostly, I assume, for the export market as I have no memory of ever seeing them for sale. On the last weekend of August every year all and sundry are invited to the brewery yard for live music and a prodigious selection of real ales, both local and imported. This was my first ever trip to this sort of festival, whereby punters can buy an empty glass at the gate and have it repeatedly filled with wonderful liquids. Somewhere over 30 beers were available, about half of them from this island. I skipped the southern offerings out of familiarity (it was good to see a roaring trade in Galway Hooker), and passed on a Belfast Ale from the Whitewater Brewery as I've already reviewed it in bottled form. Instead, I concentrated first on the produce from Hilden itself.
The eponymous Hilden is a deceptively smooth orange-coloured ale that seems rather thin to begin with but waits a couple of beats before hitting the palate with a big no-nonsense bitterness. Scullion is in the same general style but a step up in strength and weight, quite filling and tasting much more than its 4.6% ABV. Hilden's light and tasty summer ale, Silver, was also on tap, as was Molly Malone, their classic Irish stout: bitter and chocolaty yet highly drinkable. Just a shame about the shamrock livery: Irish stout does not need more paddywhackery.
For (hopefully) a limited time, Hilden are also making the beers for the College Green Brewery in Belfast, soon to be established at Molly's Yard restaurant. The house ale is the oddly-named Headless Dog, a smooth, rounded golden ale: pleasant but unchallenging. Molly's Chocolate Stout is also quite light, especially by chocolate stout standards. The flavour is more reminiscent of sweet milk chocolate than bitter dark. Bravely, there is no lager in the set. Instead, lager-drinkers are directed towards Belfast Blonde. This is a lip-smackingly gorgeous bitter keg ale. It's a touch watery, but I can't imagine any dyed-in-the-wool Harp drinkers wanting to go back after one of these.
Beer news from the North, then, is good. I only wish some of these made more of an appearance south of the border. Tomorrow, the beers controversially described in the programme as from "the mainland".