Top of my to-do list this year was travel to Kilkenny and visit the Smithwick's St. Francis's Abbey Brewery. They've been producing beer here since 1710 but that's about to change as the 1960 takeover of the company by Guinness reaches its conclusion at the end of this year when all production will be moved to the main Diageo facility in Dublin. The historic frontage of the complex will remain as a sterile visitors' centre but the 20th century brewery, just as historic in its own way, is due to be dismantled, demolished and handed over the the city authorities. It's a wonderful tour and I thoroughly recommend giving it a go before the year is out: few multinational breweries permit punters onto the brewing floor, within reach of the hot shiny bits and curious valves and switches, but you can do it at Francis's Abbey.
(Update: the brewery closed its doors to visitors on 30th September 2013. If you haven't been, you missed your chance.)
As if to hammer home the message of where Irish beer is going these days, just across the street from one corner of the complex, Ireland's largest independent brewery has just opened its first pub. Brewery Corner is owned by the Carlow Brewing Company. It's a bright and modern room, stretching from a cosy front area with open fires down to a small beer garden at the rear. There's the full range of O'Hara's beers, of course, plus a rotating selection from other Irish micros, including a rare but welcome sighting of Stonewell cider on tap.
Though I spent quite a lot of the weekend enjoying O'Hara's madly drinkable Double IPA, I couldn't pass up the chance to try the new seasonal O'Hara's Helles under laboratory conditions. Sweet and smooth Bavarian helles is one of my all-time favourite beer styles, and with decent Irish lager something of a rarity, when I heard Carlow had produced a helles I was really looking forward to it. My first pint was the one pictured, in a Dublin pub not known for its beer selection, but there it was and I ordered a pint. And it was pretty poor. I decided I'd try it again somewhere else before committing my opinion to the screen.
So here I was on the brewery's home turf, on a sunny evening in the beer garden and a cool fresh pint of their golden lager. And it's still not right; or at least not for me. The German hops are laid on pretty heavily which gives it an astringent vegetal sharpness of the sort I associate more with a north German pils than an easy-going Bavarian lager. Instead of the light fluffy biscuit sweetness I was expecting, there's a rather sickly bock-like malt character. I have history with the more severe sort of German and German-style lagers; I know there are plenty of drinkers out there who enjoy them but I'm not among them. So I can't really say whether O'Hara's Helles is fatally flawed or merely not for my palate, though I welcome other comments on it.
But that still leaves me with the problem of what to drink this summer. Perhaps it's time to take a step sideways from lager altogether. Earlier in the year, Metalman produced a "wheat lager" called Equinox. More recently, they've followed it with a beer made to the same recipe, except utilising an ale yeast. Solstice wheat ale sounds like it might be a rather insipid American-style wheat beer but it actually makes for a rather pleasant lager substitute. It has a very clean flavour profile, for one thing, even from the cask. The coriander, orange and lemon aren't very discernable, adding just a seasoning of spice, and at its heart there's the full but not cloying golden syrup sensation found in my favourite Czech lagers. Balanced, drinkable and very refreshing.
Meanwhile, the hunt continues for an Irish lager I can call my regular.