Saturday was all about Real Ale in the Real Capital, with an afternoon at the first (hopefully) annual Winter & Cask Ale Festival at the Franciscan Well. It represents a big step forward for Irish beer festivals in that it's the first in the Republic to work on the CAMRA model whereby the festival organisers buy all the beer up front and are responsible for selling it on rather than the individual brewers renting a pitch and running their own bars. It's an arrangement which I think gives a better deal for the producers and I hope to see more in this style in future.
Most of the micros were represented at the taps, with beer from Carlow, Dungarvan, Franciscan Well, Hilden, Messrs Maguire, The Porterhouse, White Gypsy, Whitewater plus a new one from Dingle's Beoir Chorca Duibhne. Sort-of new, anyway: I suspect that Carraig Dubh is the same recipe they were selling at last year's Easterfest as an unnamed special. It's very dark in colour but light and easy to drink, the roasted flavours buoyed up on fresh green German hops. Simple and tasty fare.
I missed Dungarvan's strictly limited edition Coffee & Oatmeal Stout which all sold out on Friday night, but reports from the few who tried it were very positive. Highlights that I did actually get to sample included a mellowed 15-month-old version of Franciscan Well's 3 Kings smoked ale and a fresh and fruity cask edition of their Purgatory pale ale. As promised I got a chance to try the cask version of Messrs Maguire's new brown ale and I have to say it works better on keg: once again the cask smooths out all its distinct flavours including the hallmark raw graininess.
White Gypsy had a new blend of their Raven vintage stout, this time the wood-aged imperial stout was mixed down to a very approachable 6.5% ABV, using a fresh session-strength stout. It's a masterpiece of balance, with the wood flavours present but not dominant.
My beer of the festival was not one I was expecting to be impressed by at all. Rebel Red is perhaps the most popular beer in the Franciscan Well line-up. Heineken's decision to stop brewing Beamish Red created a new market for Rebel Red and it has cropped up in pubs all over Cork. I've never been much of a fan, but there it was on the handpump on Saturday, and dry-hopped too. Sure why not? It tasted almost nothing like Rebel Red. It tasted amazing: a deep amber colour and packed with mild citrus and gentle tannins creating a sort of lemon tea effect for supreme thirst-quenching power. More than anything, I was reminded of Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter. This is the sort of high-quality session beer that, like the keg version, should be a commonplace local specialty in Cork's pubs rather than a one-off festival novelty.
In the meantime it's great that the Franciscan Well have created this opportunity to showcase these sorts of beers. Let's think of it as a first step in getting them out of the festival yard and onto the bar in pubs.