(As an irregular reader of this blog – you could hardly be a regular reader, given my slapdash approach to updating it – you'll know I don't contribute to The Golden Pints, the end-of-year awards-season reach-around for beer. Instead, I give out Boggle Awards to my favourite London bar and brewery of the year.
As I've been sitting on a bunch of half-written pieces since the early Autumn, I thought I'd preface the Boggles with a review of some of my beery highlights. So, watch out for a few more posts cobbled together from contemporaneous notes over the next few days, then the Big Awards Night around 31st December. Exciting, eh?)
I have a family connection to Ireland. The area where the Counties of Cork and Kerry meet on the Beara Peninsula, a finger of land jutting into the Atlantic, bounded on the south by Bantry Bay and braced by the dramatic mountainscape of the Cork and Kerry Mountains. My late mum was from there and I've had reason to spend a little time there over the past couple of years.
In one of those peculiar synchronicities which tend to happen to me when beer is involved, I was introduced to a character named Paul Maher, boss of an Irish beer importer called Four Corners. He imports Brooklyn into the Republic, and was in London during their week-long Mash Bash in August. Popping into The Rake for an after-work beer one Friday, I stumbled into a Brooklyn event where I met Paul. He was interested in the New London Beer, while I was curious about the state of the Irish craft beer scene. I knew a little from reading The Beer Nut's blog, but wondered, was locally-brewed beer finding a foothold?
Paul pointed me at some places to check out west of Cork City, including a Carry Out off-licence branch in Bantry. I was heading through Bantry on my way to the town of Glengarriff, so figured I could hit the ground running. And then, before my trip, my brother in law had surprised me by sending me a pic from the bar of Casey's Hotel in Glengarriff, who were now selling Galway Hooker in bottles, as well as a couple of beers from Dungarvan Brewing in Waterford. I knew there was a good chance that I'd be able to stay off the Big Six beers during my trip.
I knew where the offy was in Bantry, so headed straight there. Just inside the door, in a chiller, there were a couple of shelves of Cork-brewed beers, alongside Belgian and German bottles. The manager spotted me and we had a brief chat. I wasn't buying any beer just then, but did he know where I could drink some in Bantry? He wasn't sure, being from Skibbereen, but thought that Ma Murphy's might have some. Perfect, I knew where that was, and with an hour to kill, thought I'd belly up to the bar and see what they had.
Ma Murphy's is a traditional sort of pub just off the main square, with a small off-sales section at the front, and the bar separated by swing doors. I bellied up and asked the barmaid what they had. She reeled off a list – 8 Degrees, Mountain Man, 9 White Deer... All from West Cork, some brewed about 20 minutes away, she said. I settled on both beers from Mountain Man; Hairy Goat and Green Bullet.
When I got to Glengarriff, I was greeted with a bottle of Galway Hooker at Casey's, but I was more interested in the Dungarvan Beers. Helvick Gold was a very drinkable blonde ale, but my favourite was Comeragh Challenger, a 3.8% Irish Bitter, which had a beautiful long, astringent bitter finish. I could only manage a couple of bottles at a time, and I drank the hotel bar out of their stock, or I'd have brought some of this home with me.
As it was, I was back at the Carry Out a few days later, to grab up a few bottles. As well as Cork beers, they were stocking decent stuff from breweries outside the county. Then it was back in Ma Murphy's to sample the rest of their range. In five days, I think I drank a Big Six beer once.
The only beers I didn't try while I was in Ireland were from Franciscan Well, the brewery in Cork City. I overlooked the bottles due to lack of space but when I got back to London, Beer Synchronicity kicked in again, and I received an email inviting me to a launch for their beers in the UK. Molson Coors' investment has allowed the brewery to expand, and they are now available here.
I sampled three beers. Rebel Red, named for the county of Cork; Chieftan, a drinkable Citra-hopped pale ale; and Shandon Stout, a Cork-style dry stout which has an intriguing smoked character. Head brewer Shane Long was coy about how they get this in the beer, despite using no smoked malt. It was more complex than Beamish – the best of the Big Three stouts in my opinion – and had a nice sour character in the finish. Worth a try if you see them here, I'd say.
There's a lot more of Ireland's brewing scene to explore. Their beer organisation, Beoir.org, has a free smartphone app which can guide you to good beer, and I think I'll be making good use of it when I get back there in 2015.