The number of pubs around Dublin which carry at least some drinkable beer is getting bigger. Our national microbreweries are doing a great job of getting out there and convincing managers and owners that their product has something going for it. Yet the city's Beer Central remains on a pedestal, and is the subject of this month's Session.
The Bull & Castle has changed a lot since it converted from being a scummy inner city boozer to being the epicentre of Ireland's tentative craft beer revolution. The range of draught beers continues ever upwards, with the wonderful O'Hara's Red being the latest permanent addition to the line-up, while the capacious fridge now includes the two bottle-conditioned Porterhouse beers, Plain and Hop Head. Best of all, earlier this year the management installed a beer engine, whence has poured some great Carlow beers, including two new draught-only dry-hopped ales, Malty Bitches and Goods Store IPA -- both raising the bar for the quality of Irish beer generally.
Any wonder, then, that the Bull & Castle is the headquarters for Dublin's beer aficionados. If this wasn't enough, the home brewers get some fairly special treatment, with the upstairs beerhall hosting a tasting night every month where all-comers can bring their own beers, share them round, and generally geek out on zymurgy.
Of course no proper beer connoisseur is ever completely happy with what pubs do, so it's only fair that I throw in a few criticisms. Top of my list is the halbe glass: a German-style half-litre mug that's the preferred vessel in which most of the beers (though not the cask ones) are served. Aside from not being a proper pint, the tall narrow glass is terrible for bringing out aromas. The restaurantiness of the downstairs bar during the evening is also a bit irksome -- once you have a please-wait-to-be-seated inside the door, you've stopped being a pub. Ordinarily I don't mind nipping up to the beerhall instead, but at weekends that gets impossibly crowded, and with the DJ in full flow it's not the place for a pint and a chat.
But these are minor issues. I remember all too well what Dublin was like in the days when looking for decent beer meant either drink in the Porterhouse or stay home (and of course I still enjoy both). There are beers available today which I doubt would have an outlet but for the Bull & Castle.
This month's Session is called "Stumbling Home", with an emphasis on the transport aspects of beer connoisseurdom. Fortunately the Bull & Castle is a mere three miles or so from my gaff and well served by buses. Dublin's noble city fathers have also seen fit to position a municipal rental bike depot right outside the front door. Even were I possessed of my own motorised transport, I doubt I'd be bringing it the pub.
On one recent stumble home, I brought back a bottle of beer the manager on duty, Declan, had donated to me. It was a sample left by a wholesaler and I had spotted it from my barstool by its unusual bottle shape, but that doesn't seem to have been enough to win it a place on the stocklist. Viru hails from Tartu, though appears to have been commissioned by a UK importer. It's not too bad, I thought, being sweet and smooth, in the style of a Munich helles. I don't know how long it had been sitting in that fridge, but it could definitely benefit from being fresher. This one had started to unravel a bit at the edges and turn unpleasantly stale. Still, far better than I expected an Estonian lager in a novelty bottle would be.
Cask beer; rare beer; home-made beer; free beer. And people to talk to about it. The Bull & Castle is pretty much as good as it gets around here.