11 December 2009

By royal disappointment

Last week the Franciscan Well released its 2009 Christmas ale, under the jolly seasonal name of 3 Kings. Having adored last year's mad maple syrup and ginger confection, Phúca, I was well up for what Russell and the Cork gang had for us this time round. When I heard there was rauchmalt involved, I was off to the Bull & Castle at the earliest opportunity.

Unfortunately the reality didn't live up to expectation. Yes, there's smoke there, but rather than the hammy goodness I love, it's the rather harsh iodine-like smokiness you get in the likes of Laphroaig scotch. The late great Messrs Maguire Imperial had this as well, but it was balanced against the sweetness of dark roasted malts. Here there's just more bitterness and no cheery seasonal spices or warming sweetness. It rounded out a little as it warmed, and I did manage to get through two mugs of it -- Mrs Beer Nut not able to handle more than a mouthful -- but it was a disappointing experience.

Thankfully, Colin and 9 Bean Row of California Wine Imports were on hand to whisk us us away from all the pain. It was Colin's birthday and celebrations were in full swing at the Irish Museum of Contemporary Art -- celebrations which included a keg of the fabulous Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA. When this ran out it was replaced with Gordon Biersch Märzen, just as solid a lager on draught as it is from the bottle, and nice to get a full pint of. Thanks for a fun evening, guys.

And back to Irish beer to finish. Carlow Brewing now have an Irish red -- Traditional Irish Ale -- in Aldi's own-brand line-up. When I first heard of it I assumed it was rebadged O'Hara's Red, and the ABV is the same, but anyone I know who's tried it has said it's different. Only one thing could settle this (well, I could of course have asked the brewer, but where's the fun in that?): a taste-off.

They're both the same colour, and I got a better head from the Aldi one, though I put that down to it being at a slightly higher temperature when serving. First impressions confirmed that these are not the same beer. They're similar, though, and it took me a while to figure out how. The Aldi ale is heavier and warmer than O'Hara's, and finishes drier. It might not look darker, but it tastes it. The O'Hara's compensates with a bit more spice shining through the sweetness.

Interesting that Carlow have opted for the world "traditional" on both beers. This is a tradition that doesn't date further back than about 1960, when Guinness finally took complete control of Irish ale brewing and set about downgrading the national pale ale to appeal to a wider audience and extend its shelf life. As a result, beer that was probably indistinguishable hitherto from English bitter, became what Michael Jackson in the following decade dubbed "Irish red". It follows that when English breweries followed suit -- kegging and blandening their beers -- they'd end up with the same thing. I got to put this theory into practice recently when Dave set up a blind tasting of red ales that I went along to, with Mrs Beer Nut, Laura and Séan.

O'Hara's came away as the favourite of most -- that signature piquancy comes out far more in the keg version than the bottle. Just about no-one in the group was able to express a preference between Smithwick's and kegged Bass, and it was a 50-50 for who could guess which was which (they're both watery rubbish). They are, essentially, the same beer, proving my theory. One of the upshots is that if one were foolish enough to decide that "Irish red ale" is a beer style all its own, then you'd have to include John Smith's Extra Smooth, and the keg versions of beers like Worthington's in there too. Probably kegged London Pride and Bombardier, for that matter. Daft.

Nevertheless, I hereby claim Watney's Red Barrel as the sovereign territory of Irish ale. Where's my flag?


  1. That's a shame about the 3 Kings. I'll still give it a try when I get the chance.

    Interesting about the Aldi ale. I passed over it the other day assuming it was O Hara's. Might go back for a few bottles and check out the difference.

  2. Heading into the B and C soon so must try some

  3. "blandening"? The cromulent word is "blandifying".

  4. So which of the O'Hara's reds do you prefer?

  5. I love the Aldi O'Hara's. I hope it's a regular thing. It's a pity to hear the Franciscan well winter beer isn't up to much this year. Me and smokey beer don't tend to get on so if I try this I'll probably just sample someone elses.

  6. Dave, I think I'd go for the kegged Red first, then the Aldi one, then the bottled Red. Though the 33cl bottle is a bit irritating.

  7. I'd love to know of the history of Irish Pale Ale. Wonder if any Smithwick's brewing records still exist?

  8. Well You-Know-Who has them. I believe Iorwerth Griffiths saw them and there's some tantalising stuff in his book, about the various Smithick's beers that got consolidated into "Smithwick's No. 1" keg ale, latterly just "Smithwick's". And of course there was Smithwick's Barley Wine, up until the late-1990s: a 5.5% ABV monster.

  9. Oh, and for the benefit of people who weren't eavedropping on our conversation t'other week, Smithwick's only became an ale-only brewery in the early 1920s (Iorwerth again). There were lots of other big regionals producing ale, like Cherry's in Waterford, Cairnes's in Drogheda and Macardle-Moore in Dundalk, to name but three.