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

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