I have to confess that my weakness for multi-lingual puns is behind my choosing An Brainblásta for this month's Session. It's not a new beer, having been part of the original Porterhouse line-up from nigh-on twelve years ago. I'm no stranger to it either, but I've never mentioned it here, partly because I haven't tasted it in the years I've been writing this. Today's barley wine theme prompted me to go back for a reappraisal.
These days, Brainblásta is Ireland's only regularly-produced barley wine. Until a few years ago Diageo made something branded a barley wine under their Smithwick's marque. I never got to try it, but at only 5.5% ABV one has to question how barleywine-ish it really was. Back in the mid-1990s, when I was working as The Worst Barman In Dublin, our pub's stock of Smithwick's Barley Wine was consumed exclusively by one very elderly gentleman who would buy one bottle per week on a Saturday evening on his way home from Mass. This, I suspect, was representative of the beer's main demographic and isn't a terribly sustainable economic model.
It was the year I worked in that pub that The Porter House microbrewery opened its doors in Temple Bar (it later became The Porterhouse and moved the brewery out of town). The connotations in English of the name Brainblásta reflect how shocking a 7% ABV beer was to a country where beers of 5% or more were almost unknown. As part of the marketing gimmickry, the pub made a big deal about only selling Brainblásta by the half pint. This policy didn't last, though there seems to be an effort to revive it judging from this image (right) on the pub's web site (though despite this I was served a pint of it, having asked for "A Brainblásta". I'm not complaining). Nevertheless, judging from the media, the government, and the lumpen commentariat there's little enough evidence of much maturity in Ireland's beer drinking habits, and yet here we have a very strong, cheap beer on sale in Temple Bar for over a decade without civilisation breaking down completely. Civilisation outside of Temple Bar, I mean.
An braon blasta is Irish for "the tasty drop". Does this beer live up to its punnage? I think it does. It starts out with a powerful bitter punch which manages to avoid the harshness sometimes found in strong hoppy ales. It's followed immediately afterwards by a sweet candy caramel flavour which is similarly uncompromising yet delicious. Sipping Brainblásta -- bitter then sweet, bitter then sweet -- produces a taste sensation akin to eating a toffee apple from the inside out.
The trend among Ireland's handful of craft brewers is still for sessionable beers of 4.5% or under. The stronger stuff only shows up as special editions from the Porterhouse, Messrs Maguire and the Franciscan Well. It all makes me very glad that the novelty of Brainblásta shows no sign of abating, even after a dozen years.