Sunday, 5 July 2015

Beer, Food & Travel: Kilkenny Craft Beer Festival 2015

A beer festival in Kilkenny is hardly a new idea. After all, the original Kilkenny Beer Festival that ran from 1964 to 1975 was one of the most popular events in the country attracting as many as 200,000 people. In fact it was so popular that it became a victim of it's own success and the management of that many people, and their behaviour, allegedly led to its demise. It wasn't just about beer - although it had an Oktoberfest-style big tent, a German Oompah band and even German folk dancing - it had loads of other fringe events too such as ballad competitions, smoking contests, horse racing and, er, a doll conference. Did I mention the international cat show? No? Well there was a cat show too. (Appropriate really...)

It could be argued that this festival set Kilkenny up for the arts festivals and comedy festivals that followed, as there were a lot of B&Bs to be filled in the aftermath of its demise, and the restaurants and bars were used to dealing with an large influx of people. And these events preceded Kilkenny becoming the tourist Mecca it is today.

In the last year or so there have been a couple of new mini beer festivals too. O'Hara's ran one in Brewery Corner last year and also organised a tent in Savour last September, and as High Street and The Parade weren't knee deep in drunks and vomit slicks it was presumably deemed a success by those with long memories and short sight.

So perhaps those events paved the way for this one, and let's not forget that Kilkenny has a pretty rich brewing history and heritage too. For whatever reasons, it's certainly appropriate that it has a beer festival again.

This year's Kilkenny Craft Beer Festival was organised by Costellos Brewing in conjunction with the host bar, Billy Byrnes on John Street, a bar I really liked when I last visited it at the Beoir AGM last year. The fact that the double decker of food heaven that is The Bula Bus is parked at the back of the bar was also a major factor in deciding to go to the festival. Not that I need much persuading when there's one just down the road.

So here I was on the train with Nige, another train and another trip. There was the usual mix of travellers getting on in Carlow including one particularly nosy biddy who asked a million questions before telling everyone her life's story. Luckily we had avoided her sitting next us but a poor man with a hat and a walking cane festooned with travel badges wasn't so lucky. She asked him his life's story before in turn boring him with her's.

He got out in Kilkenny with us even though I'm pretty sure he was planning to go to Waterford...

We were meeting another friend of ours, Pablo, in the bar itself and sure enough when we arrived he was waiting for us. We paid our entrance fee, collected our wristbands, tokens and a cool pint-shaped-half-pint glasses (Yes, actual glass not plastic) emblazoned with 'Kilkenny Craft Beer Festival' in bold red writing, and proceeded towards the back of the bar where the festival was to be held. I'm pretty sure that the place had gone through some renovation in the past year, as the front bar appeared newer and the counter itself moved. The back area had changed a little too but still remained a complete contrast to the front. While the front was cool, modern and classy, the back was shabby-chic meets, er, a modern opium den. Old couches, mirrors and defunct electric fireplaces were used to great effect, with whitewashed pallets forming more seating. The big, fat Bula Bus was parked out the back, behind picnic benches and other mismatched furniture, forming an impressive back drop to the area. Sheaves of barley had been placed on the tables and there was a gentle buzz about the place, like a low vocal murmur running under the chill-out music that was playing.

I relaxed into festival mode immediately and with a nod to Gerald from Costellos who was sorting out a few minor glitches I went looking for a beer. Priorities are important after all...

There was a bar set up to my right and behind it a wall of beers - well eight beers and one cider to be exact, there was supposed to be ten but there was one no-show so there was a forlorn hole at one end of the wall. The beer ticker in me was a little disappointed at first at 'only' having 9 choices but I soon rallied as I realised that I hadn't had five of them.

So first up for me was Trouble Brewing Remix, a 4.9% India Pale Lager. I took my glass down to the wooden pallet seating and only then noticed a homebrew set-up and demo behind me emblazoned with a 3 Sisters Brewing Company posters, I made a mental note to check them out. (But forgot soon after!) I also noticed that there was a glass washing station near the bar, which was a good touch, although there was no drinking water that I could see. (Maybe this was drinking water too?) I usually come prepared with my bottle of carbonated water so this was no real issue for me. My eyes wandered back to my beer, I like these type of beer glasses as they fool the mind into thinking you're drinking a pint without the actual volume that that entails. Trouble's beer was refreshing and dry with a tropical fruit medley bite, and left a lingering taste of custard cream biscuits. A good start to the day!

Totally relaxed, the conversation wandered to Jiu Jitsu, Bruce Lee and Yip Man, topics I had no real interest in but the other two conversed across me as I chilled out, and I greedily gulped my beer a little too quickly so soon I was anxious to try another.

Radikale Dubbel was whispering to me from the tap so I chose it next - and an excellent choice it was too! It's a 7% abv full-bodied beer with a sourish barley sugar flavour and a pleasant metallic taste. I slowed down my drinking and got more involved in the conversation this time, as this was a sipping beer. We relaxed a little more and had a nice discussion about beer in general, our surroundings and other beer festivals in particular, as we tried to persuade Pablo - a beer festival neophyte - to come to more with us.

Gerald called over to us to see how we were doing and he asked if we would be interested in a meet-the-brewer style discussion with himself, Paul from Trouble, Conor from O'Hara's and Mathis from Wicklow Brewery - plus a few other non-brewers. We jumped at the chance and plonked ourselves down in the middle of the group, feeling only marginally like interlopers.

We had a great time, with sample beers from each brewery when each brewer spoke, we got an insight into how a brewer's mind works, and how and why they brew. I found out that Bennetsbridge in Kilkenny was the last place that grew hops commercially in Ireland; I heard the story of how Mathis had come over from Germany and why he did; we debated the need for foreign beer influences and supply; how hard it is to get a tap into bars; plus a multitude of other pieces of information. I could have talked and listened for hours, and indeed myself and Nige might have hogged the conversation a little too much to be honest.

The beer samples were generous and appreciated, plus I got to try Costellos red ale again. I had tried it at the Beoir AGM but not since, at the time I had struggled to get the style even though perhaps it should have been obvious that it would be an Irish red. It seemed different this time around, more malt forward maybe and more body considering it's only a 3.8% beer, with a tiny touch of ginger. Gerald mentioned that he had tweaked it over the last year and was very happy - understandably - with this final version, I certainly enjoyed my sample anyway! He also told us he would be moving to a premises in Kilkenny city soon and that he also would be bottling in the very near future. There was a moment of levity too when Trouble told us they were going to brew an Irish Red soon, which elicited and sharp look in Paul's direction from Gerald...

Next we got a sample of O'Hara's Sorachi Ace, which I had already tried a few weeks back, and it was still as good as I remembered.

Our last beer in the talk was the Wicklow Brewing Weiss, which is normally not a style I am overly fond of, but it was certainly fine and light, with a little barnyard-like funk with banana on top. I could have swore I got a smoky flavour too but, Mathis assured me that they hadn't used any so it was obviously just that the mind was telling me that I was hungry and that I needed to eat!

So we thanked the brewers and headed off in search of nourishment of the non liquid kind. The clever people in The Bula Bus had cooked all of their food with the beers that were on offer here and some of them looked like inspired combinations.

(I nabbed this from their Facebook page but I don't think they'll mind, it saved me a lot of typing.)

I was debating what to have and considering the pork belly burger when I spotted a wood burning pizza oven at the side of the bus and made a bee-line in that direction instead.

The menu looked appealing and as I was going for a palate cleansing Highbank Cider next, the flammkuchen was the obvious choice.

I placed my order and we sat down with Alain from Radikale, as I wanted to compliment him in person on his Dubbel. We chatted about various topics, the beer scene in Cork, US west coast breweries and a multitude of other subjects. Soon my flammkuchen was ready and I got stuck in. It was really good, a great base to start with, with the tangy, sweet red onion and the sour cream contrasting perfectly. My only minor gripe was that the bacon was a little scarce but that's probably just the greedy pig in me coming out. Paired with the wonderful Highbank Proper Cider it was even more excellent - the cider tasting like tart Granny Smiths, so refreshing, dry and basically superb. It reminded me of some great ciders I had enjoyed in Somerset in England a few years ago.

After that we said goodbye to Alain, and Nige and I headed to Brewery Corner for a 'break', while Pablo stayed to listen to a band that were just starting up.
Later on, we arrived back to the festival to see a table being laid for a beer pairing dinner. We would have loved to stay for this but time and Irish Rail ( Why the hell are there no late trains anywhere in this country?!) wait for no man so our minutes were limited. A TV company were filming the event so I spent most of my time avoiding the camera and the rest drinking beer, as I needed to try another new one to me.

Four Provinces The Hurler is a 4.2% red ale that reminded me of red lemonade from childhood summers when the sun was shining just right, add in a couple of malted milk biscuits and that was this beer to a tee. A great tasty finish to our day...

... except it wasn't.

With a close eye on the time and another eye on the hipsteresque maĆ®tre d' who was serving/embarrassing those seated for the dinner - It was a performance as well as a meal! - I decided to finish my day with an O'Hara's Sorachi Ace IPA, to toast the festival. (Apologies to 12 Acres, which is my standard tipple in Tully's Bar back in Carlow so I didn't have it here, and to Dungarvan - I forgot about you!)

We thanked Gerald, said our goodbyes and wobbled our way to the station and the 7pm train home, with just enough time to get a sensible coffee in the station. I was beginning to get hungry again but I was secure in the knowledge that a pork red curry awaited me at home, which would be a great end to a great day. Now, what beer to have with it though...

So, My thoughts on the festival?

I really enjoyed it and it's a great addition to the already festival-laden city of Kilkenny. It was well managed, with plenty of food choice and fun, in an intimate and unique setting with a great atmosphere. Proper glassware and good music definitely helped too.

Would I change anything?

Not a lot, the beer ticker in me would like to see more choice in the beer range I think. No stouts for example seemed strange to me... so maybe 20 beers next year?

Will I be back next year?

Yes, definitely - and that's the best indicator really. Isn't it?

Oh, and lastly ... maybe they should revive that cat show...

27th June 2015

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