Monday, 11 January 2021

Lost in the Noise? - Smithwick's Black Diamond Ale

A while back I came across what I thought was quite an obscure label for an ale brewed in St. Francis Abbey Brewery in Kilkenny - more popularly known as the Smithwick's Brewery. 'Black Diamond Ale' certainly wasn't a brand I'd come across before but after studying it a little and putting it up on Twitter I filed it among my many other Smithwick's labels, where it sat until some spark in the back of my brain reminded me of its existence.

As some of you already know, I have a love/hate relationship with Smithwicks. The brewery as a company has had such a huge impact both locally in Kilkenny and globally too, that it's impossible not to think of them when one discusses the brewing history of Ireland. Unfortunately the history that they choose to promote isn't correct in my opinion, as if you listened to any of their recent marketing from the last few decades one would think they were brewing the current iteration of their red ale since 1710 - or even earlier if you believe that monks were brewing it in the abbey itself! I've written a little about their history here, about their Time brand here and even about their lost lager brand - Idea - here. These may give you an idea of where I am coming from with my comments, so I won't go back down that much travelled road here - but it does raise an important point.

Has this cleansing of a brand's timeline, where the marketing companies behind them have purged and pruned away anything that might poke holes in their fakelore, left Irish brewing history in a sorry state? Using Smithwick's as an example - where are their references to all the wonderful sounding beers the brewed since 1827/28, the brewery's actual founding date? Their stouts, their mild ales, their dinner ales, their East India Pale Ales and other are lost in the monotony of their one-beer braggery, and even their 'old' best selling 'No.1 Ale' - a pale ale as I keep stressing - is lost behind that behemoth 'traditional red' ale that was launched c. 1965.

So getting back to 'Black Diamond Ale', I was getting frustrated looking for information on this beer and I was beginning to think that this was just a prototype label for a beer that never saw the light of day. Especially as it appears to have been trimmed to shape by hand, although it seems to have some age ... ruling out a recent copy. A quick look in newspapers from this time finally threw up one lonely result, but even this is important as it shows that it did exist out in the wild at one point, as in a 1955 a gentleman from Borris in Carlow was before the court on a drunk driving charge after being in a local pub listening to a match and 'all the while was drinking "Black Diamond" ale." We get another hint of what this ale might be at the start of the report, as the Garda giving evidence says that 'the defendant [...] admitted having taken [drunk] ten or twelve bottles of barley wine'.*  (The charge was dismissed by the way, as although he had been sitting in his car when arrested the judge decreed he had not attempted to drive it.)

The label too is the same size as Smithwick's Barley Wine above and of similar style, so it is possible it was another form or strength of that style. My own feeling is that it was perhaps just a rebrand of their existing product, but why would they do that? The only connection I can make is that Kilkenny was famous for it's coal, specifically the area around Castlecomer not very far from Kilkenny city. (That coal seam also crossed into neighbouring Laois where there was a huge amount of mining in the 19th and early 20th century, an area where I grew up.). That coal was called 'Black Diamond' and even those who mined it were called 'Black Diamonds' as reported in a few newspapers so it is quite possible that it was labelled as such as a tribute to the county's coal mining history and its miners. It would be interesting and mildly exciting if it turned out to be a stronger barley wine.

Unfortunately I can find no other references to the ale but I still think it is more than worthy of a mention here, as it is some small part of our brewing history and therefore it should be remembered and recorded, even if my thoughts are pure conjecture. It's just a pity that it hasn't been recorded elsewhere (that I can find) and that the Smithwick's brewing history isn't freely available online - but then again, that might jar with the myth ...

UPDATE: By chance I came across the following invoice and matching delivery docket from 1951 that seems to prove my theory that Black Diamond Ale was indeed Smithwick's Barley Wine in different clothing. The cask (firkin) number matches and the delivery docket clearly states Black Diamond while the invoice says Barley Wine ...


The invoice itself is of interest too, as it gives the publican clear instructions regarding the venting and returning of casks:

'When venting the Casks please bore through the Bung, and not through the Stave, and when emptied have Corks and Vents placed in them, and returned in reasonable time, advising us thereof.'

There are also instructions on conditioning:

'IMPORTANT - TO ENSURE THE BRILLIANCY AND GOOD CONDITION OF OUR ALES THEY SHOULD BE KEPT IN A TEMPERATURE OF 55° - 60° FAHR [13° - 16°C]. TO ENABLE US TO MAINTAIN SUPPLIES IT IS IMPERATIVE FOR CUSTOMERS TO RETURN ALL VESSELS IMMEDIATELY THEY ARE EMPTY.'

(That is certainly my kind of ale serving temperature!)

Last but not least, note the telegram address 'MALT' and the telephone number - 14.

A nice find ...

Liam

[Updated 9th March 2021]

Just as a footnote, there is a bit of a resemblance to certain Bass labels ...

(EDIT: See Martyn Cornell's comment below too ...)

*New Ross Standard - Friday 30 September 1955

(All written content, photography and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission, full credit to its source and a link back to this post.)

1 comment:

Martyn Cornell said...

"Unfortunately the history that they choose to promote isn't correct in my opinion …"

You can safely delete the words "in my opinion". The history they choose to promote is wrong, demonstrably and without doubt.

I would suspect that Black Diamond lasted only a short while because Bass came down on them like a ton of nutty slack: the diamond logo was the one Bass used on all its "other than pale ale" brands, with eg Bass No 1 barley wine using a red diamond, and P2 Stout using a brown diamond. Thus they would not have been happy with Smithwick's using an identically shaped logo for their own barley wine.