23 March 2008

Munster mash bash

The Irish beer calendar is a short one and mostly concentrated in the latter half of year, with Hilden in August, the GIBF in October and CAMRA NI's Belfast festival in November. The main event, however, is the first of the year and happens on Easter Saturday and Sunday at the Franciscan Well brewpub in Cork. This is where the nation's craft brewers gather to sell their wares side-by-side and meet the drinking public. This year there were stalls from Hilden, Hooker, Carlow, White Gypsy, the University College Cork Pilot Brewery and the 'Well itself. Whitewater had just sent some bottles along, and The Porterhouse phoned in a keg of their Oyster Stout but left it to the hosts to serve it. Unfortunately there was a supply problem with the new Dingle brewing company (Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne) so I didn't get to try their beers.

For the second year, the Irish Craft Brewer contingent among the festival-goers used the opportunity to award prizes to the best beers available, and this year the top gong went to a cask version of the Franciscan Well's Purgatory pale ale. I had it in its kegged incarnation last year, and quite liked it. On cask, however, I was blown away. It was superbly balanced with big mandarin fruit flavours sitting comfortably next to a sherbety hoppy bite, all attached to a full smooth body. A deserving winner and hopefully we'll get to see more of this.

A runner-up award went to Messrs Maguire Imperial, which I have already raved about at length. The MM brewer is about to launch his own range of bottled beers under his new White Gypsy brand. He says that, the market for Irish craft beer being what it is, most of this will go straight to export. It's a shame, but I'm depending on the usual suspects in the retail drinks trade to get hold of at least a few cases of these for the locals. This stand was also selling MM Best, a beer which does the festival circuit in the UK and beyond, but is rarely seen in Ireland. The pub where it's made used to have a regular cask ale (called Pale, if I recall correctly) but it, and its beer engine, disappeared some years ago. Best is a light-bodied golden session ale with a slightly astringent bitterness. All of the cask beers were being served through sparklers and I used this one to decide my opinion in The Great Sparkler Debate. Having tasted it with and without the plastic tap attachment (picture, right), I confess to not being able to ascertain much difference.

Third place went to last year's champion Galway Hooker. As the only winning beer produced on a year-round basis, Hooker clings to its premier position in the pantheon of Irish craft beers. Still daring and still fresh even after a couple of years on the market. As I mentioned on Friday, their Irish Coffee Porter was made for this event and it was available in both keg and cask varieties. I didn't try the kegged one to see how it worked with the right gas mix, but the cask one was definitely a different beer to the one I was drinking in the Bull & Castle. The foamy head carried all the coffee essence that I thought was missing from the keg version last week. Fuller, smoother, and altogether more flavoursome. It could be that there's some truth to this notion of cask beer being somehow better than keg...

Another cask beer walked off with the prestigious Beer of the Festival award, decided by popular acclaim rather than any formal voting procedure. This was Carlow's Druid's Brew, made especially for the Easter festival each year and modelled here by the lovely Cormac. It's a powerfully bitter stout with a real back-of-tongue dry tanginess in addition to bags of full-on stout roastiness. Its texture is fascinating, being very similar to the sort of creamy smoothness you get with nitrogenation. This, I guess, is the effect the Guinness scientists were going for when they developed nitro beer back in the '50s.

UCC's Pilot Brewery had two beers on (though not when this picture was taken). Frithjofs is a lager which looks for all the world like a Belgian witbier: cloudy and pale yellow-green. It has you thinking of lemons before even taking a sip. In reality it's not really lemony, but it does have a tangy fruitiness to it, to my mind more like a light German weiss than anything else. It's also quite dry and crisp and probably works well as a summer refresher. The other tap (eventually) dispensed UCCinator, a dark bock, though a bit light-bodied to count as a doppelbock, despite the name. It has quite an overpowering sweet-and-sour character, reminding me more than anything of boiled sweets. At 7.4% ABV it's probably just as well I couldn't drink much of it.

As well as their own beers and the festival visitors, the 'Well also had a small range of Belgian beers on tap in the upstairs bar. I tried the Barbar Winter Bok, a deeply dark brown lager brimming with sweet sweet fruity flavours and concentrated essence of banana. Another one not to be taken lightly, but good in its own sweet way.

The Festival continues today but I'm back in Dublin, my cup having truly runnéd over with Irish craft goodness. The buzz among the brewers mentioned the possibility of a Dublin beer festival along similar lines. Going to a beer festival then home to sleep in my own bed would certainly be a pleasant novelty.

11 comments:

  1. Great write up Beer Nut, sounds like a great festival with some really interesting beers

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  2. Didn't you read that we weren't to discuss sparklers in blogs?

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  3. Certainly was, AT. There really should be a few of these in different parts of the country through the year.

    It's different rules down in the Rebel County, Boak. Besides which, I'm flameproof.

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  4. Blue Sunshine1:54 a.m.

    This sounds like an awesome time. The Irish really know their beers.

    I wish I would more of a beer connoisseur when I took a class over at the University of Limerick.

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  5. This sounds like a great event - maybe even worth making a trip to? A Dublin beer festival of some sort sounds good too.

    The Druid's Brew looks fantastic. I'd love a pint of that and going back to the sparkler thing; maybe you couldn't tell the difference, but doesn't that sparkled pint just look better and more appetising?

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  6. Blue Sunshine, I wish that were true but, judging from the numbers of people drinking macrocider and alcopops, it's really not. For the rest of us, having any cask beer available was a marvellous novelty, never mind half a dozen different ones. Some of us outside the cities only see craft beer at events like this, or in their personal fermentors.

    Tandleman, yes it is worth a trip to get a look at how the land lies over here without having to drink bad beer in the process.

    I don't think the pint does look better sparkled because it looks nitrogenated. I would expect to find it too cold, too bland and generally unappetising. That said I really don't care what beer looks like. If it was blue and steaming I'd still drink it as long as it tasted nice.

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  7. Cormac8:59 p.m.

    If I'd known my hand would be used for modelling pints I would have had my nails done.
    Only 360-odd days left for my next pint of Druids...

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  8. No difference regarding sparklers?

    and

    "It could be that there's some truth to this notion of cask beer being somehow better than keg..."

    It must be your Irish sense of humour at work surely.

    I met a chap at the SOBA Homebrew Nationals who had returned from living in Ireland, he had trained at and brewed for Franciscan Well.

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  9. The sparkler thing is an honest assessment, though I admit it wasn't exactly conducted under scientific conditions. I will say, however, that the sparkler issue is probably more relevant to people who drink more than a handful of well-spaced-out pints of cask beer a year. That is, people who aren't me.

    The keg thing, well perhaps not 100% serious there, but I do think the case is, shall we say, somewhat overstated in certain quarters.

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  10. It was a bit strange bringing a pint of stout to your lips that looked for all the world like one of the commercial nitro offerings, and then have your head snap backed with flavour.

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  11. Sure was. More of this kind of thing please.

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