02 May 2008

A moment of clarity

Boak and Bailey's quest for the origins of beer obsession lead me to revisit a story I touched upon three Sessions ago.

Two days after I turned 19 I moved to Dublin. Guinness, of course, was what one drank in the capital, and I took to that without complaint, getting to know the pubs around town that had a reputation for a good pint. As my first year in college ended I was in no rush to leave city life so rented a flat in Temple Bar and got a job at a nearby pub, one very conscientious about the quality of its Guinness, of course.

I was a terrible barman and hated every minute at the taps. I loved the quiet afternoons just moving glassware around, and treasured evenings in the cellar, shifting and stacking kegs. Serving people drink was a pain, and cleaning up afterwards even more so. The pub was jointly-owned by three very hands-on managers. The youngest was quite the bon viveur and made a point of visiting every new restaurant and pub as soon as it opened, and would report back to his co-managers about what the competition was up to.

After closing time one evening I was cleaning up and making my usual heavy work of it. The owner I mentioned, who had been on an evening off, strolled in under the shutters, poured himself a pint of Bud and plonked himself down on a barstool.

"Went to that new place round on Parliament Street," he told his colleague on duty, "and get this, they're making their own beer. In the pub. And they don't even sell Guinness."

I remember distinctly, over in the corner, I stopped dead with my mop. They do what?!

It's no exaggeration to say I felt a personal paradigm shift right there. The notion that beer could be made anywhere other than in a big factory by anyone other than a multinational corporation staggered me. At the first opportunity I headed down to this "Porter House" to find out what they were up to. Sure enough, there was no Guinness. The centre of Dublin, on the well-worn tourist path between Trinity College and St James's Gate, and no Guinness. Not only that, but a whole soapbox piece on the back of the menu on how our beloved national brands had steadily killed off the variety that once existed in the Irish beer market, and how, once they controlled the market, they set about dumbing-down their beer to meet the needs of their accountants and shareholders. I was sold before I ever ordered my first pint of novelty beer.

That summer I dragged everyone I knew to the Porter House to show them what a pub could be like in this brave new world. Few took to it, though I tell myself it's because so many of my friends were cider-drinking students on whom craft beer was utterly wasted. My immediate first love was Porter House Red. This was the mid-1990s and the nitro-red craze was in full swing, led by Caffrey's but followed swiftly by Guinness's own Kilkenny. I'm a little surprised that PH Red is still available, given that the style has long gone out of fashion -- Kilkenny is pitched squarely at tourists and Caffrey's is no longer made or sold in Ireland. Yet this beer and another craft clone of the same vintage -- Messrs Maguire Rusty -- are still going strong. Within a few weeks of my first visit, the Porter House had added Wrassler's XXXX stout to the line-up. It was the boldest tasting beer in the country, strong and uncompromising, and I was hooked immediately.

In the following years I began to travel and discovered that pubs with in-house breweries could be found all over the world. It became a habit that, as part of my trip planning, I'd check BeerMe and European Beer Guide for the presence of brewpubs at the destination. This inevitably led to going out of the way to find microbreweries, and then, also inevitably, making trips just for beer. After doing that for a while I became more interested in getting good beer at home -- life's too short to drink bad beer, I reasoned. Or to drink each bad one more than once, at any rate.

But how do I avoid drinking a bad beer twice, or recognise a good beer the second time it comes my way? A bit over three years ago I figured I should start writing this all down. And so here we are. As every quantum theorist knows, observing anything changes its nature. My interactions with beer have certainly changed by being written down here, and reading all the other great beer blogs out there just makes me thirstier.

In the meantime I kind of drifted away from the Porterhouse (as it renamed itself). It gets very crowded and loud, the service is lousy and that initial draw -- beer brewed on the premises -- came to an end as the company outgrew its brewery and moved production to a new facility in the suburbs. I'll still go back for specials and seasonals, but I've mostly lost touch with the place.

So last weekend I went back, to my old seat by the window, for a couple of pints of nostalgia. Porterhouse Red is much bitterer than I remember it. In my head it's loaded with slabs of toffee flavour; in reality there's a good solid dose of galena hops in the driving seat. It's still very refreshing, though I don't know how much of that is down to the temperature and nitrogenation. Interesting without being challenging -- what a good session beer should be. But not what I was expecting.

Wrassler's hasn't changed, however. After all these years it still has the power to shock: intensely bitter tobacco notes kick in first, smoothed out by an underlying and lasting chocolate flavour, and based on a thumping great dense body. No amount of nitro can tame this one, and I'm very minded to re-establish more frequent contact. The newest branch of the Porterhouse is considerably more civilised than its parent. If we get a summer this year I might just make an appointment with some Wrassler's in its beer garden on a regular basis. We have some catching up to do.


  1. 'They do what?!'

    I love it. That's just superb. Having got to know you and the Indiana Jones like lengths you go to track down beer, it is wonderful to think of you in this innocent state.

    Help me with the image... mop in hand... did you have hair?

  2. Thanks a lot, a good story!

  3. D'y'know, I had meant to post a picture of myself around this time, but I can't remember where I have it stored. I'll go looking.

    Yes, I had hair. Shoulder-length, curly, receding hair. Think geeky teenage Michael Bolton.

  4. Nice one. I had a couple of Wrasselers last week in Covent Garden. It is a superb stout.

  5. OOps. Spelling. Wrassler's of course!

  6. Great story.

    Gee, I once had hair too (old photos are reminiscent of Tiny Tim) but now I don't. I hope beer isn't the common factor here. :-)

  7. If you go to enough beer festivals in the UK you learn that beer and hair loss are really not related.

    Apparently, an excess of alcohol does diminish the amount of testosterone in one's system, which is why tramps usually have such full heads of hair.

  8. OK, you asked for it. This actually dates from some three years later than the story above, but you get the idea.

    I Dare You Not To Laugh.

  9. All I'll say is, you're a brave man for posting that photo.

  10. I don't know what you mean.

  11. Great story, nice to hear the beginnings of the obsession.

  12. Thanks for this contribution - thought it was marvellous. And strange to think of the Porterhouse as leading the revolution - the London branch is hideously overcrowded and never has any of the beers on that they say they do...

    And what a photo!

  13. What a great session topic! I loved reading your entry.

    I was in the Porterhouse in Temple Bar not long ago, to try the Oyster Stout-- but I had just had the Messrs Maguire export stout which I kind of fell in love with so anything after that didn't stand a chance.

    I've been meaning to try more Porterhouse beers at the location in Covent Garden here in London but I hear the crowd is a bit, well, bonehead-- so I've been putting it off!

  14. Was trolling through the internet, reading about beer and bumped into your blog. I must admit, i was hooked onto your lay-man style of writing your experiences. I agree the article dates back to 2008, but at 3 pm, It made me thirsty for beer.
    Thats a good sign ain't it?