I've only been going to the Easter Beer Festival at The Franciscan Well in Cork for the last three years. But even in that small space of time it has improved noticeably. While in 2008 there was still a fair bit of space allocated to importers and wholesalers, it's now wall-to-wall breweries, with the only absentees being Whitewater (oddly) and the two which neither keg nor cask: Clanconnel and Galway's Bay Brewery.
Making their debuts as commercial breweries last Saturday were Dungarvan Brewing Company and Trouble. Dungarvan's emphasis is going to be on bottled product, though they also have a limited cask capacity and were serving two of their three beers from the handpump. Copper Coast is a fairly standard Irish red, ticking the biscuit and caramel boxes appropriately, though with an added dose of bittering hops and a slightly unfortunate touch of phenol at the end. I'm sure that'll be ironed out in later versions. Next to it was Helvick Gold -- about as far from plain, lager-substitute blonde ale as it's possible to get. At 4.9% ABV, Helvick is full-bodied and quite powerfully bitter with a waxy fresh honey flavour. Not a quaffer; more a thinking man's blonde. Black Rock stout did not make an appearance, and by early Saturday evening all the Dungarvan beer had sold out. They must be doing something right.
Next door to Dungarvan, the Trouble Brewing crew were resplendent in their lurid orange uniforms: observe the pride with which Stephen wears his (right). The first beer to emerge from the three-man operation is another blonde ale, called Ór.This is simpler fare than Helvick: lightly fruity with just a little hoppy complexity and a nice clean refreshing fizz from the keg. It'll be a good one for outside summer drinking, I'd say.
This year also marked the first appearance of Beoir Chorca Duibne at the Easter Festival. As well as Cúl Dorcha, which I sampled back here, they had a hand-written pumpclip marked "EasterFest Special". Oh dear, I thought, a batch of something went wrong and this is their attempt at off-loading it. I ordered a glass anyway and felt immediately guilty for being so cynical. It was a rock-solid chocolatey dark ale with an interesting sourness on the end -- something Séan tells me is from the incongruous German hops. Some very tasty rule-breaking there.
Barrelhead was back for a second year. The cuckoo brewery has moved out of White Gypsy's nest and its newest Pale Ale was brewed at Franciscan Well, I'm told. It was a lovely sherbety number, ripe with orangey zing and equally good on cask and keg. Unfortunately I've no idea where this will be available, but it's well worth looking out for.
As always, the UCC Pilot Brewery brought their Germanic stylings to the festival. I've not been massively impressed by these in the past, but things definitely improved this time round, with a golden fruity lager called Hansel and a delicious companion weissbier named Gretel. With White Gypsy Amber and Galway Hooker Pilsner also available, festival-goers were very well served for quality Irish lager.
At the White Gypsy stand, Cuilan was introducing people to Melissa who will be taking over from him as the brewer for Messrs Maguire in Dublin. Hers is the unenviable task of turning the under-used, under-promoted brewkit into a feature that will work for the owners and draw the crowds into the pub. I'll be keeping an eye on how things develop at MM, and not just because they're currently serving a very fine pint of White Gypsy Amber, badged as MM Munich.
Six White Gypsy beers were available at the festival, including Raven, the first commercial release of the Vintage Imperial Stout I went to see being casked last year. Raven is a blend of the unoaked version and the one from the French barrel. It's quite well balanced, being light on general aroma, heftily woody in the flavour but completely missing any off-putting phenolic notes, and without any trace of the astringency which dominated the beer prior to aging. Things got really interesting when Cuilan pulled out a bottle of each of the four versions: original, French oak, American oak and ex-Bushmills cask. After a brief struggle with a mangled corkscrew and a pair of pliers, the beers were poured and the differences between them were amazing, with subtle vinous notes from the French oak, massive Bourbon vanilla from the American one and heady whiskey aromas from the Bushmills. When the American and Bushmills versions were blended the result was stunning: rich, complex and aromatic. Plans for the final destination of the beer(s) are still sketchy: Cuilan's not in any rush to make a decision and seems to be enjoying the learning process of finding out what different woods do and how they can be blended -- a skill which would once have been common among Ireland's stout-makers but which now has to be re-learned from first principles.
And that was the festival for another year: hopefully a sign of a building critical mass of Irish craft beer. Thanks as always to The Franciscan Well for affording the hard-pressed Irish breweries an opportunity to sell their wares, and the equally hard-pressed drinkers an opportunity to enjoy them.