14 March 2013

Tír Chonaill a-brew

The growth in Ireland's craft brewing scene seems to be concentrating in the north west at the moment: not terribly surprisingly since it's woefully under served with drinkable beer, though it's nice to see that some people at least think there's a market for something different. Tyrone's Red Hand brewery launches its first beer at The Brewer's House this coming weekend, while nearby Poker Tree is expected to be in production later this year, but Donegal has been quietly turning out the ales for a while now.

The label on my bottle of Donegal Blonde claims a foundation date of 2011 though I understand it was late into 2012 before anything was pouring. The brewery is based at Dicey's pub and off licence in Ballyshannon, a long-time supporter of better choice in Irish beer. The bottle styling is simple, though the first note of concern came with the less than generous fill level (left). Sure enough, coaxing a head onto the beer took a bit of splash work and the foam didn't last long. The sparkle is the lightest imaginable, but at least it's not flat, and the colour is more an attractive red-gold than generic blonde.

No qualms whatsoever about the aroma. Expecting something very plain there's actually a gorgeous spring garden floral smell. If washing powder ads had an aroma, it would be this. The flavour doesn't quite live up to it, being watery for the most part, with dry grain hitting the back of the palate and those flowers just gradually infusing the senses at the end. But, surprisingly for a brewery that hasn't mastered the art of filling bottles, there are no off flavours or nasty surprises. The recipe is flawless and I suspect that a bit more fizz would do wonders to lift it. I can easily imagine settling in to a session on this at the source, or at any of the nearby pubs who have the good sense to stock it.

Meanwhile, up the other end of the county, Kinnegar Brewing has been turning out beer on a very small scale for a couple of years now. Distribution down in these parts is sparse to say the least, but Geoff from the Bull & Castle was kind enough to nab me a bottle. There are three in the range and this one is the amber ale: Devil's Backbone. No undercarbonation problems in this bottle conditioned job: it's wild fizzy so it is, hi. (Reuben found the same.) When the foam subsides the 4.9% ABV beer underneath is revealed to be quite a minerally one, reminding me in general of the better sort of English brown bitter, and Adnams's in particular. I was sort-of expecting more of a hop perfume, given that "amber ale" carries particular US connotations and the brewer is himself an American. But the hops here are all about the bitterness, adding an assertive bite to the one already provided by the carbonation. It's very tannic, which I love, with the tea effect turning a little towards earl grey thanks to the subtle hopping.

Wonky carbonation notwithstanding, if these two are anything to go by, the future is very bright for microbrewing in west Ulster. Sadly, neither brewery is represented at the Irish Craft Beer Village which opened yesterday at Dublin's IFSC and runs to Monday, but there's plenty of other good stuff to drink, including a new Eight Degrees stout, a double IPA from Carlow Brewing and a rare opportunity to taste Irish craft cider on draught.

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