Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Travel: Kilkenny City - A Trail of Red Ales, and More...

'... in the immediate neighbourhood are several very extensive flour-mills, three large distilleries, four breweries ...' Samuel Lewis - 1840

I don't visit Kilkenny as often as I should, as it suffers from being too close to my Carlow base to seem like a 'proper' day out destination, which is of course, ridiculous, unfair and illogical but that's how my mind operates...

When I do make the short journey from station to station it's usually for an event such as Savour or the Kilkenny Beer Festival, so my itinerary is usually forced by the schedule of events that I wish to participate in or attend. I never go just for a leisurely wander, to chat, drink and eat at no one else's pace apart from those nice people in Irish Rail, who incidentally appear to have no concept of a night or late evening train along the Dublin-Waterford track that jaunts into Kilkenny station and back out again in reverse, much to the confusion and panicked looks from many a tourist.

But myself and my travelling companions decided that Kilkenny would be the best place for this social trip given that some of us were caught for time both before and after this trek and needed a close-by destination to scratch that itch of - well - beer, food, travel...

As you can see from the opening quote by Mr. Lewis, Kilkenny has a huge brewing and distilling history, but that history has been eroded by the slow death of brewing in this once beer-focused city with the loss of breweries literally changing the skyline and even affecting how the city smelled, although a resurgence is coming as you will see...

Stepping from the train into a dreary, cold late morning we decided that somewhere for a coffee and sustenance should be our first destination so we heading past the beautiful St. John's Church with its strange, unfinished steeple, then down John's Street and over the bridge before turning right onto St Kieran's Street and past a plethora of busy coffee shops that have sprung up along the narrow street.

Mocha Days
One of the least inviting and quieter looking establishments was Mocha Days, but its menu promised us crepes and coffee and looked like it could accommodate us so up the steps we bounded, past the large covered outdoor seating area into the cafe itself. We were greeted immediately and proceeded to be attentively served with assorted coffees, teas, crepes and salads. They have a pretty extensive menu of sandwiches, wraps, jacket potatoes, pizzas and more. Unfortunately they seem to stock just macro beers if my quick glance in their fridge was anything to go by ... but we weren't looking for beer yet so this didn't affect us.

My '3 Formaggi' crepe was excellent, with a nice amount of gorgonzola giving it a wonderful funky kick, and I was so hungry I ate half of it before remembering to do the Blogger thing and snap a photo! We found out it had just opened under its present guise the previous Wednesday, but the seem to have the service and food pretty right in our opinion, as we were all very impressed with our choices and attention. We'll be back, but they could do with adding a little colour and softness to the rather stark entrance - and a few microbrewed beers to the fridge!

The Hole in the Wall
Although the term 'Hidden Gem' is overused, I think it does apply to our next destination, which we arrived at by retracing our steps along St. Kieran's Street before cutting right up the steps and along St Mary's Lane, past the soon to open Medieval Mile Museum, and on to High Street. The Hole in the Wall is just across the road down a narrow alley that would not be out of place in a Harry Potter film. Even with its name and date of original construction daubed on a sign at the entrance you could easily miss or dismiss it as you wander along the main shopping street of the city, with its bright shop signage and windows full of enticing-to-someone, shiny wares.

Ms. Rowling would be equally au fait with the look of the entrance into the snug and what lay behind the modern-ish front door. We stepped inside and lifted a latch into the snuggest snug I have ever squeezed in to, with the counter and serving area taking up at least half the space. There are one or two other rooms to this pub but we stayed put in this bar and looked at the selection of beers. There were the usual macro bottles and most if not all of the O'Hara's core range including Leann Folláin. I spotted a sign for Costellos Red too, but decided to wait until later for that local tipple. Being in Kilkenny I decided a different red ale would be appropriate and went for O'Hara's Red. (I will leave it to wiser minds than mind to debate the age, authenticity and parentage of 'Irish Red Ale'...)

O'Hara's produce a solid version of this much maligned style and it was certainly a perfect choice to sup, as we chatted with Anna - from Germany - behind the bar. The bar was full of old doors and bric-a-brac with notes and history lessons posted or scribbled on the walls. The countertop is an old rafter with a few pieces of slate resting on top, which made balancing your drink and bottle a exercise in patience, bravery and frustration.

This is a tourist bar, as the ubiquitous row of dollars and other currency pinned to the shelf over the wall testify to ... and it's a 'Talkers Bar' with low music and perfect acoustics for both intimate conversations and shouting matches, and I dare say it has entertained both. Seemingly it's a great bar for live music too, although we were there too early - and possibly in the wrong room - to appreciate that...

We finished our drinks just as some tourists entered, and with a knowing wink we headed out and up the main street to a little piece of Carlow in Kilkenny City, as we left I heard them ordering three cans of Kilkenny Ale...

Brewery Corner
Brewery Corner is on Parliament Street, which extends on from High Street towards St. Canice's cathedral. It's nestled in a row comprising 4 or 5 other pubs opposite the entrance to the now closed Smithwicks brewery. Carlow Brewing the brewers of O'Hara's beer range, opened here in 2013 and took the brave decision to only stock microbrewed beers. Their own full range plus a few seasonals are always on draught along with a few guest taps from other Irish breweries, so choice is rarely an issue.

It's a nice blend of old and new with traditional timber, quirky posters and paintings - many leaning towards its focus as a music venue - games and a nice beer garden at the back. Behind the bar I noticed Craigies cider in prime position, no surprise given their recent acquisition of than business!

Resisting the urge to try their own red ale on nitro, first up for me was O'Hara's Styrian Wolf IPA, the latest in their Hop Adventure series, a beer brewed with Slovenian hops, which I drank before as a bottle at home, but comments by The Beer Nut who claimed this hop tasted somewhat like Sorachi Ace - one of my favourite hops - made me choose it here on tap. And he was right - of course, dammit - but whether I would have picked it up without the prompt I don't know ... but I don't remember tasting it in the bottled version. They Sorachi Ace flavour was more muted perhaps with a light peppery note and that meringue-ish quality ... regardless it was a very nice beer, although I can imagine some style junkies questioning its IPA pedigree.

We chatted with a very knowledgeable guy behind the bar, watched a rugby match and had our crotches sniffed by a lovely old dog who seemed vaguely at home here, if slightly bewildered by us. It really is a bar you can feel at home in, and it has the best selection of beers in town by a long shot. They do food too, pizzas certainly and I think other bits and pieces too, although we didn't eat or inquire this time.

Next up was Gose to Leipzig from YellowBelly Brewery in Wexford, a brewery I enjoy most of the beers from and who are always coming up with quirky styles and strange combinations. Unfortunately their beers are rarely seen in Carlow, so I tend to keep my eyes peeled for them when I'm out and about. This was an interesting one and my notes say 'mild rock shandy with the dregs of Andrew's Liver Salts...' a description I am happy to stand by. It was a glorious palate cleanser after sharing a few other bottled beers that my companions had, some of which were very good but a few of which were not to my taste, to be polite.

In danger of becoming too settled we decided to make a move and head back toward the town centre, but we didn't get far...

Cleere's Bar
Cleere's Bar is right next door to Brewery Corner and we couldn't resist having a peep inside, as I'd never been here before. It's a very traditional bar known for its, er, well, traditional music. It was fairly busy but I spied a 12 Acres Pale Ale tap at the bar so I decided on a glass to support my local Laois-based brewery. Behind the bar I spotted a row of strange but somewhat familiar bottles that turned out to be specials brewed across the road in the aforementioned Smithwick's brewery. Unfortunately they were just for show so we headed off to to grab a pint and a pizza!

Sullivan's Taphouse
We reached Sullivan's Taproom via John's Bridge (the street) and the newish pedestrian bridge that spans the brooding river Nore and deposits you on John's Quay just in front of the attractive but a little austere city library. After that it's a quick jig left and right through the carpark and into the back entrance of Sullivan's. The site was a garden centre up to quite recently and the glasshouse structure that dominates the site is where the brewery will be built at some stage in the future - for now the beer itself is brewed in Boyne Brewhouse but using Kilkenny grown malt.

[At this point I must confess that my last visit here was with a Beoir contingent that got a sneak peak at the taproom before the official opening. We were well looked after that day with food and drink so if you think that influences my comments or opinions well ... that your decision. (Edit: I also received a growler of their beer just prior to publishing this post...)]

The idea is for most tourists to enter through the The Wine Centre (The taproom is a joint venture with Sullivan's.) or the archway beside it from John's Street and to make your way past the merchandise, mugs and a growler station to the bar proper. This large and airy room then exits onto the covered beer garden with a wood fired pizza oven taking up the space at the end of this area. (By coincidence the pizza oven is made in Wolfhill in Laois where my father's family came from, not far from where I grew up and where I got the name for my home brewery!)

With the smell of woodsmoke hanging in the air and all of us developing a hunger we decided on the pizza-and-a pint-deal. On tap was Sullivan's Maltings Red Ale along with two guest beers from O'Hara's and 9 White Deer. I ordered Sullivan's own brew as well as a chicken and bacon pizza and we sat down for a rest and a chat as we waited for our pizza to cook. In the beer I picked up flavours of childhood red lemonade and really good soda bread, with more body than I'd expect from its 4% abv. It's hugely drinkable and probably the type of beer that we need to drink more of, it's certainly one I'd go for if I was out for one or two leisurely pints and not beer ticking.

Our pizzas arrived promptly and we all tucked in, swapping slices - as you do - and making positive comments all round. I like this addition to the Kilkenny beer scene, it has a good atmosphere and they are certainly spending money on the brand, story and the promotion of their image. But I do feel they need more of a draw to get more people in their door(s) such as a slightly extended food menu, more events and perhaps some more collaborations with other Kilkenny experiences like they have had with Savour. Anyway, I'm expecting big things from them in the future...

It was starting to fill up now and unfortunately they were out of their barley wine, which I was planning on sharing with the others, so after a quick visit to the ridiculously scarce toilets we made our way out towards John's Street, past all the branded goodies and out under the sign that states sorta-factually but a bit cheekily in my opinion states 'Established 1702'.

Billy Byrne's
Our last stop before our early evening train home was Billy Byrne's on John's Street just 2 minutes from the station. I had been here a few times previously, most recently at the Kilkenny Beer Festival run by Costellos Brewing, who's red I hoped to catch here. This is a lively spot with the added bonus of The Bula Bus parked out back serving great food. We stayed in the front bar and sure enough I spotted The Red from Costellos at the bar on tap. Costellos are just starting to brew on their own kit here in the city, not too far from where I was drinking this pint, before that it was brewed at Trouble in Kildare.

I had a gulp at the bar conscious of our train time ... this is another flavoursome beer given that it is only 3.5% abv, there's a whole coffee and toffee malt flavour with just the smallest hint of bitterness for balance. It's another sessionable one for sure, although I'm not entirely comfortable with that term. Enjoying it I sat down near the front window, and promptly walloped the back of my head on a low shelf at the back of a couch, seemingly placed there by the sadists in Billy Byrne's for just that purpose. I suspect that they film it and that there's a whole YouTube channel dedicated to videos of people doing this!

Rubbing my head and feeling sorry for myself I thought back on how perfect a day it had been, from our brunch earlier to sitting here - albeit with a headache, but a good beer - it had all the hallmarks of a successful day ... great company, great beer, great bars, all in a great city.

I would highly recommend the route we took but we did miss a bar or two (I wish I had missed that shelf!) as we ran out of time, we might need a revisit again soon...

Cheers Kilkenny!


Visited 11th February 2017

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

History: Brilliant Beverages from The Saracen's Head?

To Brewers, Retailers of Beer, Ale, Cider, &c.

THE ADVERTISER has invented FININGS that will cause the article of Beer, Ale, Cider, &c., to become immediately transparent, without violating the law or injury to the article.
The RECIPE is for sale or contract for a supply. A Sample Bottle will be sent to any address, made from this Recipe, on the receipt of 2s 6d, or, in powder, at 8s per cannister, with proper directions for use.
Address - ANDREW WOOD, 5, Snow Hill, London.

(The Carlow Sentinel -  November 1847)

As Isinglass had been around for a long time, was this is a new product? Or at least a new process? With the recipe available too, it must have been made from a raw material that was relatively freely available ... gelatin based perhaps?

There's also an interesting footnote in the fact that the given address was The Saracen's Head Inn, a quite famous establishment in Snow Hill, London that was demolished in 1868 and is now the site of a police station. One assumes that Mr. Wood had lodgings there? Or perhaps it was used as we use PO boxes today...

So not hugely interesting or exciting but ... lots of questions and very few answers!


[With thanks once again to the local history room in Carlow library]

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Travel: 't Brugs Beertje, Bruges - Notes from the Past

(With the recent changing of the guard, I thought it fitting to dig out this piece from an unpublished larger piece I wrote about a visit to Bruges and Brussels back in 2009.)

't Brugs Beertje sits on an unremarkable side street that millions of tourists pass by every year - unless you know about it of course.

Before we pushed open the door we could see the place was packed and the chatter of people as we entered confirmed that this - like De Garre earlier - was a meeting place for locals and beer tourists alike. The front bar had no free seats so we made our way to a quieter back room where by pure luck someone had just vacated a table, their empty glasses still in place and chairs still warm. No music was playing, the only noise was that chatter from the front room and the murmur of quieter voices in this section. The room itself had a homely feel, more like the livingroom of a house with extra chairs and tables added, with some street signs and beer advertising memorabilia hung on the wall for atmosphere. Not that it need those, as with the voices, smells and agreeable clatter of glasses, this place has bags - or bottles - of atmosphere.

A group of Americans were behind us, and more to our left. One leaned over and asked how we say 'Cheers!' in Ireland. Resisting the urge to say that we say 'Cheers!' too, I told him 'Sláinte.' This seemed to satisfy him and he returned to his conversation, never speaking to us again. How he knew we were Irish I don't know, as we hadn't spoken yet. Perhaps he had heard us in De Garre earlier? Or maybe we just look very, very Irish.

A woman I knew from my research to be the owner Daisy came over and asked us what we would like. I went for Valeir Extra on her recommendation of a hoppy beer, and it turned out be just that - a bitter, citrusy brew with a hop-filled bite that woke my palate after a long day. Nige went for a De Koninck from Antwerp and Pete went for the Brugs Wit, one of his favourite styles.

We drank our beers and discussed the trip so far. We had so far found great bars, great beer, and we hadn't even done any serious sight seeing yet. There was still the Groeninge Museum with its impressive painting by van Eyck, Bosch and David, we wanted to ascent the Belfort, visit some churches, and of course drink more beer. We had a lot to cram in before heading back to Brussels for one night and then heading home.

The night wore on, with Daisy keeping us plied with beer. I had another hoppy beer next, Urthel Hop-It, which was not as bitter as the first, a little smoother with less bite perhaps, but possibly a better beer for me. I followed that with a dark beer, a pleasant if not exciting, liquorice tasting 't Smisje Catherine - more of a belgian stout than an imperial stout perhaps...

We ate too, having cheese and salami first, then toasted ham and cheese sandwiches with a tiny touch of mustard that didn't take from the beer.

All this time Daisy dashed around efficiently and effectively keeping everyone happy, a perfect host adding to the feeling that this was the entertaining room of a house and not a pub at all.

I finished off the night with a wonderful De Dolle Special Extra Export Stout, that hinted at overripe banana and rum with a smoky aftertaste and a nice degree of bitterness in the end. A fitting beer to end the evening on...

And so we bade farewell to Daisy, thanking her profusely and a little drunkenly for her service, beer and food and leaving the still busy pub behind us, we tottered back to our lodgings for an early night.

(Apologies for both the lack of photos and the quality of the two I did manage to take!)

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

History: IPA in Carlow in the 1840s - Approved by the Surgeon General!

When we last met Henry Birkett in 1842 he was having a bit of a to-do with Guinness regarding the quality of their porter, and as I trawl through old editions of The Carlow Sentinel in my local library looking for more information on the breweries that dotted the town up to the mid 1800s, his later advertisements catch my eye on occasion. They seem to have put aside their disagreement, as he is continuing to sell Guinness's product in 1844 along with a few other beers, plus a perry and a cider, as the below advertisement shows.

This version is similar to the one I posted before regarding the Guinness dispute and that I flagged on Twitter as the first mention of 'East India Pale Ale' for sale in the town (1842) but what was interesting this time were the prices...

Perry 7s per dozen
Devonshire Cider 6s per dozen
Cairnes' Drogheda Ale 4s per dozen
Guinness's XX Porter 3s 6d per dozen
East India Pale Ale 3s per dozen

The pale ale was the cheapest. 

Admittedly the perry and cider were imported, but this surprised me as I thought  the East India Pale Ale would be offered as a new, premium product at a premium price, even if it was brewed - I suspect - in Dublin as an earlier advert from 1842 (below) seems to show that Pim's offering was the bitter beer of choice in the town, and available across Market Cross in another grocery establishment. This advert sang its praises as a medical fix-all - endorsed by the 'Surgeon General' noless - so why was it now priced cheaper than all other beverages? Had it dropped since it was first seen 2 years previously in the town?

Sorry, that's an actual question ... I don't know the answer.

But perhaps the answer lies in the fact that this was just the price of IPA...

Another find - you can see here - shows by 1846 Birkett now stocked Bass Ale, adds weight to my argument that their East India Pale Ale from 1842 was indeed supplied by Pim's ... and had to drop his Guinness price back to a 1844 level, for bulk purchases at least!

A discussion an 'Imperial Perry' and 'Captain Pidding's Celebrated Teas' will be left for another day!

Interesting stuff ... to me anyhow.


[With thanks once again to the local history room in Carlow library]