Drink: Chocolate drops

Michael Jackson sups the nectar of love
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As St Valentine is making clear this year, there is nothing quite like a romantic weekend. Nor, in my experience, is there a better way to spend it than drinking in Dublin, preferably with my green-eyed, red-haired, love.

I have never loved a woman who thought her gender fitted her only for white wine. Nor one whose idea of a beer was a half of a lager that she imagined would make her slim. Happily, there are more women of taste than is widely supposed.

I have noticed that the black brew has in recent years become much more popular among what used to be known as the fairer sex. Black is, I suppose, the most fashionable of colours.

Observers who believe that men and women have different taste-buds argue that the chocolatey flavours in stout please a female sweet tooth. I do not accept the premise, but agree that the three famous Irish stouts have all diminished in bitterness in recent years. In pursuit of the younger drinker, Guinness has become more chocolatey, less sappy and woody, than it once was. Murphy's is less toasty. Beamish, once the most chocolatey, seems now to be less obviously so.

The chocolatey, or sometimes espresso-like, character of stout derives from the use of grains that are more highly roasted than in other styles of beer. In some cases, the grains have been roasted to produce what is known to brewers as "chocolate malt". The term is used because barley malted in this way has a taste that mimics Bourneville's best.

That roastiness is what defines a stout, as against other nuttier, sweeter or even tarter dark styles. In the traditionally dry stouts of Ireland, the balancing bitterness comes from a dose of hops that is heftier than in most other styles. A warning to Messrs Guinness, Murphy and Beamish: take too much of that bitterness away and the beer will cease to be more- ish. It is the dryness on the tongue that invites another creamy kiss.

The creaminess of stout is another of its attributes. The few stouts pulled by hand gain much of their creaminess simply from the grains and procedures used in their brewing. There is an especially lively creaminess in stouts where the yeast is still at work. The far more common creaminess is less romantically owed to the nitrogen used in its serving. Nitrogen makes for smaller bubbles, and less gassy- seeming beer, than the carbon-dioxide used to pump most lagers. A good bartender will pause to let the bubbles settle for a while, only gradually "building" the pint. "If you're after having a quick beer, you are in the wrong place," one such artist unnecessarily explained to me. He was at the time using the flow of beer to describe a shamrock in the head of my pint. For St Valentine's, I'll have an arrow piercing a heart, please.

The skill of Irish bar staff, who take a pride in their trade, is one reason why stout tastes so much better in Ireland. Another reason is its very popularity. A pub that serves a lot is turning over very fresh beer.

The best way to enjoy these sensuous qualities is to fly to Dublin after lunch on Friday and be there in time to drink a pint of Guinness while watching the city's movers and shakers crowd the Horseshoe Bar at the Shelbourne Hotel. In Dublin, the weekend begins at the Shelbourne. It also slows to a close there, with Guinness and oysters on Sunday lunchtime.

And in between? Dublin has more favourite pubs than any city I know. The gentlest of strolls from the Shelbourne might take in a pint of Guinness among the theatrical memories at Neary's, off Grafton Street. From there, it is a saunter to a literary litre or so at the Palace Bar, in Fleet Street. This pub was favoured by Flann O'Brien, who hymned praise to plain porter, stout's lighter brother ("A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man").

If you sweet-talk the bar staff at the Palace, they might open the snug for you and your love. Last time I was there, I had a pint of a new stout that revives the name of a long-gone Dublin brewery. The new D'Arcy's Stout, fragrantly smoky, medicinal, and maltily textured, is made by a young micro-brewery in Smithfield, once the distillery quarter of Dublin. Without the apostrophe, Darcy was also a character created by JP Donleavy, whom I have spotted in the odd Dublin bar. Donleavy once said that when he died he wanted to decompose in a cask of porter, to be served in the pubs of Dublin.

Leave the Palace, head through Temple Bar to Parliament Street and you may find yourself in the Porter House, a newish establishment that brews its own. Brews include a flavour-packed Red Ale that makes Caffrey's seem like Tizer; a fruity Plain Porter to inspire the next O'Brien; a peaty, salty, sweetish Oyster Stout that is claimed to contain a handful of the precious bivalves in each brew; and a firm, oily, bitter-tasting pint called Wrassler's that recalls the Guinness of my teenage years. A stout called Wrassler's, brewed in Cork in the early 1900s, was said to be a favourite of the republican leader Michael Collins. I have yet to be at the Porter House in winter for a strong ale called The Tasty Drop, rendered in Gaelic as An Brain Blsta. Does Dr Mowlam know about this, I wonder?

The Porter House will also offer products from other new small brewers in Ireland at a beer festival from 13 to 17 March to celebrate St Patrick's Day.

Pints of chocolate

The wonderful Black Chocolate Stout of New York's Brooklyn Brewery will be available in Britain by October. This achieves an astonishingly chocolatey taste from malt alone. It is as big, cakey, spicy and fruity as a Sacher Torte.

New Yorkers can also get a lighter, but still very smooth and dry, Chocolate Stout imported from the British country brewery McMullen's, of Hertford. Regrettably, British drinkers are thought too conservative for this beautiful beverage just yet.

London brewer Young's is slightly more daring. Its Double Chocolate Stout can be found in Britain. This brave brew does contain chocolate. It is silky and textured, starting with a suggestion of milk chocolate but rounding out with a good balance of bitterness. The chocolate is added in bars and extract.

Fuggles Chocolate Mild, from Whitbread, is back in all 120-odd Hogshead pubs nationwide for St Valentine's. It is a dark, coloured beer, with a light, soft body and a sweetish chocolate taste. This, too, contains chocolate extract. The name Fuggles comes from the classic hop variety, the only one used in this beer. Fuggles hops have a faintly aniseedy taste.

Liverpool brewer Cain's has created a paler, tawny Chocolate Ale. This smooth, nutty brew is lightly flavoured with dark chocolate and has a violet-like floweriness. The same brewery has the amber Cupid's Ale, soft but dryish, and very lightly flavoured with ginseng. Both are available only from ASDA.

Michael Jackson's new book `Great Beers of Belgium' is available to readers at the discounted price of pounds 11 (usual price, pounds 14.99), including postage and packing. Send a cheque or postal order only, payable to Prion Books Ltd, to Belgium Beer Offer, Prion Books Ltd, 32-34 Gordon House Road, London NW5 1LP.

White of the week

Tim Adams Clare Valley Riesling, pounds 7.99, selected Tesco stores. A region of small, quality-conscious individuals, the Clare Valley, north of Barossa, is one of Australia's finest producers of long-lived Rieslings. This youthful, full-bodied Riesling from Tim Adams is romantic but restrained and stylishly dry, with citrusy fruit flavours and a food-friendly, tangy bite.

Red of the week

1994 Dunnewood Zinfandel, pounds 7.95, selected Safeway stores. The spice and berry flavours of the Zinfandel grape make it a versatile red-for-all-seasons. The spicy, woodsmoke aromas of this North Coast wine combined with a succulent strawberryish fruitiness make it a highly appealing and relatively inexpensive - for California - treat.

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