"What do you normally drink?" is a question I get asked a lot by friends, after I've gone off on one about how the pub we're in doesn't have anything worth drinking, and how the pint of Guinness I'm suffering through is horribly cold and tasteless. As a relentless pursuer of new beers, it's an uncomfortable question. I don't really have anything I'd describe as my regular. With two exceptions.
I gave a full account of Galway Hooker when I first tried it last year, and it remains the beer I drink most often when I'm in the pub (this was much to the annoyance of the nice phone poll lady who bizarrely didn't have it on her beer list when she asked me the question above). I'm still in love with its blend of sweet Irish crystal malt with a four-hop formula led by late Saaz and Cascade.
But, for the moment at least, Hooker is confined to the bar tap only. I do most of my drinking at home, and my fallback, regular favourite here is one I've been drinking for years but never actually given a proper account of: O'Hara's Stout. This month's Session gives me the chance to put that right.
Matt asks us to put on our BJCP hats. I don't have one, and I really don't see the point of applying style guidelines to commercially brewed beer unless one is actively engaged in selling it. However, the Programme does have a category called "Dry Stout", citing the Irish ones as examples, and the overwhelming characteristic of O'Hara's is certainly its dryness. You get a brief chocolatey overture on the nose, but it's followed swiftly by a stunningly, tongue-witheringly dry, almost sulphurous, flavour. After a second the bitter, roasted coffee notes rise to take the edge off, and then the chocolate makes a reappearance for a smooth, sweet finish. Bottled O'Hara's Stout, at cellar temperature, is jam-packed full of flavour.
There is a draught version, served on nitro in a handful of pubs, but it lacks the real dry character. The fact that I proved myself unable to tell it from chocolate-malt-laden Murphy's shows, I hope, just how injurous nitrogenation is to the bold flavours of decent stout. Bottled O'Hara's is available in lots of Irish off licences and supermarkets, and is exported to the US and several other countries. I'm not sure how much ends up in the UK but its makers, Carlow Brewing, produce an Irish Stout for Marks & Spencer to a very similar recipe.
Like virtually all Irish craft beer, O'Hara's is a simple, no-nonsense product in a traditional style. It won't get any plaudits from me or anyone else about exotic flavours or strange and exciting ingredients. So why is it my favourite? The answer is simply because it's always there and it's always good.