You know how neighbours love to gossip, and how annoying that can be. So it's not in the least bit surprising that when Edward Cecil Guinness shacked up with his attractive cousin Adelaide that he felt the need to buy a large semi-rural estate, away from prying eyes. Edward's dad, Benjamin Lee, was also an enthusiast for, ahem, keeping it in the family, so it was probably wisdom passed down from father to son over the sherry. It was Edward Cecil who first floated the family firm on the London Stock Exchange, and retired at 40 as Ireland's richest man, having set the foundations for the growth of Guinness into the unstoppable monster which would eventually destroy all traces of quality and variety in Ireland's beer market.
So it is with supreme irony that Edward's incestuous lovenest now plays host to an annual gathering of the handful new breweries which exist despite his corporate heirs' market dominance. Farmleigh House, at the western edge of Dublin's Phoenix Park, became state property in 1999, and last year the cultural events calendar featured SeptemberFest for the first time -- a free festival of drinks from native producers, which of course included the 10 or so craft breweries currently operating on the island. I missed it through being at the all-Europe festival in Copenhagen, but apparently it took 8,000 visitors over the two days and was deemed enough of a success to be given another outing in 2009.
This time round, IrishCraftBrewer was asked to fill a bit of space in the tent, so I was there for the duration, talking home brewing with anyone who'd listen. Which was lots of people, as it cheeringly turned out. We didn't get 8,000 people this year though. Estimates from the gate at close of business on Sunday put it at somewhere around 35,000, largely due to the glorious weather. When the beer queues were on the far side of an hour it's a definite advantage to have been in the tent well ahead of opening to get some sampling done before the masses descend.
And sample I did. Probably the biggest news of the festival was the long-awaited launch of Porterhouse beers in bottles. Porterhouse Hop Head, conditioned in its funky 33cl bottle (BrewDog who?), was flying out and is absolutely delicious. I recall a little bit of bitter harshness in the draught version, but that's smoothed away here leaving a beer which pounds the palate without inflicting any real damage. A new higher strength edition of Porterhouse Plain has followed it since. I look forward to more in the range. And, of course, to bottles sized for grown-ups.
Whitewater had brought their new stout on its first outing to the Republic. The brewery that began by making exotic English-style bitters seems to be going for more solid fare of late, with Belfast Lager appearing in bottles a couple of years back, and now the 4.2% ABV Belfast Black is available bottled and nitrokegged (though don't ask me where). From the keg it's an absolutely rock-solid chocolate malt dominated Irish plain stout, very much on the sweeter side of the spectrum. Some of the crew even mistook it for a dark lager. While I can hanker after greater diversity in Irish beer all I want, it's great to see yet another decent Irish stout following Mizen out into the world. I've yet to try Belfast Black from the bottle but there's every possibility it could give O'Hara's a run for its money.
And from the black North to the black of beyond. Beoir Chorcha Duibhne have been brewing in Dingle for two years now, supplying cask ale to two local pubs. At last year's SeptemberFest they were serving a pale ale called Beal Bán. This year, it was a dark copper affair rejoicing in the name of Cúl Dorcha (helpfully translated by ICB's Gráinne as "Black Arse"). Again the style-police fell on it and one commentator had it likened to an alt. I'd be calling it a porter myself -- full-bodied, slightly bitter and lightly roasty. However there is a slight grainy, dry element that lets me see where the alt comparison comes from. It's a simple and enjoyable beer, the sort that won't end up the talk of the festival, but if you were served it in its home pubs you'd be very happy. Especially considering what else is likely to be on tap.
Last of the three newbies was the latest from White Gypsy, a Blonde session ale of 4% ABV. It packs a fair bit into that modest body, being sweet and chewy with a firm kick of sharp German hops on the end. Though again, outside of Ireland's tiny festival circuit, I don't know where you're likely to see it.
That's the beer out of the way, but I can't leave without a quick shout-out to David Llewellyn, north Dublin's apple magnate, who was able to sell his magnificent dry cider due to the temporary licensing arrangements (courtesy of The Porterhouse) at SeptemberFest. He reckons it's just too expensive to distribute via a middleman, and his own licensing set-up means he can normally only sell it by the case at his numerous farmers' market stalls by prior arrangement. It's wonderfully refreshing stuff and, as far as I know, is Ireland's only proper cider available commercially. David had a very brisk couple of days' business at the festival, between the cider, his vinegars, apple juice and the latest innovation: super-creamy apple ice cream. If you see Llewellyn's Orchard Produce at any of Ireland's outdoor food markets it's well worth making enquiries on how to get hold of his wonderful artisan cider.
It was heartening to see the interest in Irish craft beer displayed by the visitors of SeptemberFest. I doubt there was a single punter hankering after Heineken, and the family atmosphere was just the sort of image about-face that beer in Ireland needs, even if it's only for two days. With more events like this we could go a long way towards turning the tide of Irish beer tastes, away from the global brands which currently stink up the bar.
I hope Edward's ghost had a good view from his tower.
Westmalle Dubbel - *Origin: Belgium | Date: 2008 | ABV: 7% | On The Beer Nut: October 2007* It's a longtime favourite today. Westmalle Dubbel goes back to the very beginnings...
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