Real Ales, Irish Style: A Pub Crawl Around The Microbreweries

On the hunt for the perfect pint in Dublin, Kieran Falconer discovers some full-flavoured alternatives to the 'black stuff'. There's a toffee pilsner, a stout made with fresh oysters and a best-selling rusty red brew

Dublin is hot. Not in the way poseurs define their latest pair of pants - it's just bloody boiling the weekend I'm here. It has never been this hot since dinosaurs did the breaststroke on the Liffey. Dubliners are shocked into baring pasty skin and the cubs of Celtic Tigers lie spreadeagled on St Stephen's Green. Dazed Spanish schoolchildren, wilting under fluorescent rucksacks, will return home to tell their countrymen that Ireland is hotter and drier than Barcelona and send thousands of tourists to their doom, cagoule-less under the normally unforgiving Irish weather.

In such a situation, in such a country, the only real response is to take to drink. Now for most, the drink has to be the "black stuff". Guinness has dominated the market for so long, that for most it seems that no other beer has ever existed in Ireland.

At one time, there were hundreds of local breweries, just as there were in the UK, and a local pint, was just that, something made down the road. Guinness's advance was a slow, steady century-old agglomeration and defeat of competition. Economically, it's proof that in its purest state the best company eventually becomes a monopoly. Sadly, that has meant the loss of a great many flavours and tastes, beers that were the daily drink of dockers in Cork, farmers in Limerick, priests in Kildare. Lost, rather shamefully, and replaced by a range of bland tasteless beers .

It wasn't until the 1990s that microbreweries revived. Biddy Early started a brew pub in the depths of County Clare and from there a trickle emerged. A level playing field was still needed though. The taxation on Guinness (4 million pints a day) was the same as a microbrewer making 100 pints a week. Lobbying and EU law last year ensured progressive duty, which gave an easier ride for the small brewers.

But back to my pint search - endorphins at the ready. Obviously, this is not a difficult quest in Dublin but walking along Burgh Quay, with my back to the O'Connell Bridge, I come upon Messrs Maguire, a busy brew-pub, whose airy interior is strewn with armchairs and Polish waitresses. I knock on a door in between the pub entrances and it opens quickly to reveal a sweating, ginger-haired man in a blue boiler suit wearing huge, red rubber gloves - the sort that you deliver calves with. Coolan Loughane has a broad grin and pulls me into his domain of beer.

He is chief brewer at Messrs Maguire and we stand beside the furnace - hot vats of cooking malt. It was already hot outside and now it's like a dry sauna and my shirt clings to my back as he gives a lecture on beer production, feverishly pointing out pipes and valves. Downstairs in his storeroom, the walls are bedecked with awards, which modestly, he doesn't point out.

"The great thing about brewing on a small scale," he tells me, "is the flexibility. One day I might come to work and it's a glorious, summer day and I think to myself 'let's do a nice golden ale and celebrate the sun'. Big brewers can't do that."

He also avoids the pain of consistency. Guinness and big brewers in general have to ensure that their millions of pints all taste the same. Loughane doesn't feel the need. "I produced a pilsner with a slightly caramelly taste to it, something the big brewers usually try to extinguish, but it tastes great so why destroy it? Inconsistency is where you find new tastes."

Inside, the pub is large, comfortable with good service, and besides the micro beers there are the normal ones you would expect. Loughane brews a wheat beer with hints of coriander, a lager of concentrated malt, a pilsner with an edge of toffee, a plain stout, but the best seller is a rusty, red ale. Ireland used to be famous for its red ales and many of the brewers are bringing this lovely ruby, slightly sweet ale back to the bars.

Loughane didn't start out in beer. He was a plumber and when he worked in Canada he got roped into microbrews and then returned, a huge convert, to create the award-winning Dwans beer in his native Thurles, Tipperary. He commutes every day to Dublin - and it's a long way to Tipperary.

In response to the growth of microbreweries, Guinness has started producing its Brewhouse series of limited-edition stouts, testing the urban Irish market with different tastes. You'll find them in selected bars in Dublin. However,by the time the behemoth of Guinness changes course, finds it has got it wrong and backtracks, having spent millions, the dozen or so microbrews have developed maybe 50 different beers and spawned two more breweries.

A place where choice is overwhelmingly catered for is The Porter House in Temple Bar. This tawdry showground of hen and stag nights has one glittering haven of quality beer. Founded by two cousins, Liam LaHart and Oliver Hughes, in 1996, it is now the biggest Irish brewer - since Guinness is foreign-owned. Their pub is a cavernous three-storey building with mezzanines and Escher-like stairs working their way around the central brewing paraphernalia. Giant glass cases fill the rest of the nooks with beer bottles from around the world. A group of jolly tourists hoot on finding their favourite Japanese beers. Old posters and metal signs for Irish beers long past also flag up a heritage being revived.

Three stouts, three ales and four lagers are all brewed on the premises or the premises of the nearby pub. But the biggest joy is trying a pint from a 19th-century recipe. Wrasslers 4X Stout was originally brewed in West Cork and was the favoured drink of Michael Collins. The most popular is the oyster stout, brewed using fresh oysters with a sweeter, slightly smoky texture. To clear the palate a very classy pilsner is on offer.

So successful have they been that they now have five brew-pubs, including one in Covent Garden. Cheeky advertising has helped. They named a bottle of lager Probably, so that they could say it was "the best lager in the world", but Wiser Buddy, didn't last long thanks to the lawyers.

It takes some cheek and a lot of passion to fight against the big breweries but the trickle of microbrewers is turning into a flood. The consequence is that people are enjoying flavours their grandfathers tasted. It is at once something old and something new.

1. Arainn Mhor Brewing Company

The beautiful island of Arainn Mhor is off the coast of County Donegal. Irish is commonly spoken and certainly the local brewery will aid your fluency. Two bottled ales are made, one golden (Ban), one dark (Rua), both made without additives or artificial carbonation.

CONTACT: Arainn Mhor Brewing Company (00 353 87 630 6856; ambrewco.com).

2. The Biddy Early Brewery

In the middle of nowhere in the west of Ireland in County Clare. Allegedly this was Ireland's first brewpub, started in 1995. It produces four beers - Black Biddy, a stout; Blonde Biddy, a pilsner; Red Biddy, a red ale; and Real Biddy, an ale.

CONTACT:The Biddy Early Brewery (00 353 65 683 6742; beb.ie).

3. Carlow Brewing Company

This microbrewery produces the award-winning O'Haras Celtic Stout, Curim Gold Celtic Wheat Beer and Molings Traditional Red Ale.

CONTACT: Carlow Brewing Company (00 353 59913 4356; carlowbrewing.com).

4. The Franciscan Well Brewery

On the site of an old monastery which had a well with healing properties, this pub makes Rebel Red (red ale), Blarney Blonde (a fruity kolsch), Shandon Stout, Rebel Lager and Friar Weisse (a white beer).

CONTACT:The Franciscan Well Brewery (00 353 21 4210130; franciscanwellbrewery.com).

5. The Hilden Brewing Company

Its motto is "keep it real" and Seamus Scullion must have done an excellent job because he celebrates no less than 25 years of brewing this November. There's a visitor centre and restaurant where you can indulge in a top-class lunch in a relaxing atmosphere. Beers include four ales and a porter.

CONTACT: Hilden Brewing Company (028 9266 0800; hildenbrewery.co.uk).

6. Kinsale Brewing Company

Founded in 1997 in the foodie capital of Ireland, this brewery produces a golden, hoppy lager using spring water, natural ingredients and no additives.

CONTACT: Kinsale Brewing Company (00 353 21 4702124; kinsalebrewing.com).

7. Strangford Lough Brewing

A Viking king has two beers named after him - Barelegs Brew and Legbiter. The latter is the name of his sword, while the grave of St Patrick has inspired St Patrick's Gold (wheat beer), St Patrick's Best and St Patrick's Ale - one smashed saint.

CONTACT: Strangford Lough Brewing Company (028 4482 1461; slbc.ie).

8. Messrs Maguire

You might get the tail end of Maguire's Octoberfest and be able to taste its new porter, specially developed for winter. Otherwise its tried and tested Rusty Red would be my tip.

CONTACT: Messrs Maguire (00 353 1670 5777).

9. The Porter House

With at least nine regulars on tap and possibly a couple of seasonal specials it's good that Porter House provides the choice. It is doing a dark lager (Vienna) for the winter, a bit like Sam Adams.

CONTACT: The Porter House (00 353 1679 8847; porterhousebrewco.com).

10. College Green Brewery

Situated in Molly's Yard, this is the city's only brewery producing Molly's Chocolate stout, Belfast blonde lager and Headless Dog amber ale.

CONTACT: College Green Brewery (028 9032 2600)

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE

Kieran Falconer travelled as a guest of Tourism Ireland and the Conrad Hotel Dublin. Aer Lingus (08708 765 000; aerlingus.com) offers return flights to Dublin from several UK airports including London Heathrow from £60 return. Doubles at the Conrad Dublin (00 353 1 602 8900; conradhotels.com) start from €230 (£164) on a room-only basis.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Tourism Ireland (0800 039 7000; discoverireland.com).

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