26 April 2010

Under Napoleon's Nose

It was the draw of the Wetherspoon Beer Festival that led me, against wise council (cheers Ed!), to set foot in The Bridge House on my few free hours in Belfast last Friday. It was not yet 4pm so of course the place was buzzing. I felt a bit out of place among the other customers, what with my ability to walk upright and use tools. Had I shown them that I understood the gift of fire I don't know what would have happened. Perhaps I would have been made god of their loud and sticky hell. Anyway, there was nothing from the top flight of the festival listings available, and I settled for 3 Bees Oatmeal Stout. It's a solid, workmanlike performance, very dry for the most part, with a pleasant chocolate complication and a tiny bitter hop bite, shading towards metallic, at the finish, There's a certain charm to it, and it's inoffensive. Quite the contrast to Belfast's JD Wetherspoon and its clientele, in fact. I moved on.

Top of my Belfast hitlist was The John Hewitt, across town. Reputed as one of the city's best beer venues it's run as a non-profit co-operative apparently. The beer selection was not as good as I was led to believe: beer of the week was Cruzcampo, unfortunately. Two cask offerings from Hilden and Belfast Black on keg were the sum total of craft beer. I settled for a pint of Köstritzer and one of Hilden Ale before hitting the streets again, a little disappointed.

Round the corner is well-reputed gastropub The Northern Whig: a cavernous venue which serves nothing at all worth drinking, while nearby is the Duke of York where, with the Hoegaarden tap removed, the selection has got worse since my last visit in 2005. This trip to the beer mecca of Belfast was not working out as well as I'd hoped. A shortcut through the generic-UK-shopping-centre Victoria Square brought us out at Bittles, a quite charming narrow pub where whiskey is the dominant theme. The bottled beer selection is quite decent, between local and Scottish micros, but I plumped for a pint of keg Samuel Smith's Old Brewery Bitter, just for the novelty. It's sweet and Tizery, probably pairing well with a dram or two of the decent. The beer lover, meanwhile, moved on again.

Just across the alley, in fact, to The Kitchen. This pub was demolished and rebuilt as part of the Victoria Square redevelopment. While there's no doubt that a lot of the original charm was carried off in skips years ago, it holds a reputation as a proper beer pub and I reckoned it was well worth investigating. I probably should have known when I met a woman at the door dressed head-to-foot as a Magners pear that my visit wouldn't end well. In fact, it ended some thirty seconds later when I observed that the clips on the two handpumps on the bar were turned around, and everything else on sale was muck. Another blow for my perception of the Belfast beer scene.

I don't remember why I'd earmarked The Garrick as worth stopping in, but I did. A decent selection of Hilden and Whitewater bottles languished at the bottom of the fridge, but I was in the mood for ticking and opted for a couple of Italian lagers. Theresianer Premium Lager is from Trieste and is brewed for a definite Austro-Hungarian feel. It has a soft yet dry character which is unchallenging but decent, as a helles should be. Theresianer Vienna is a lot like the Samuel Adams Boston Lager with which it shares a shelf in the Garrick's fridge: properly Malteser-malty, shading towards Ovaltine, with only a slight tail-end staleness spoiling the fun. For unfussy boozing outside on a warm Friday afternoon, one could do an awful lot worse.

By this stage it was coming close to the train time, yet I was desperate to find some Whitewater beer on cask. My list was exhausted, but there was one sure bet a few blocks away: I headed for The Crown. It's been a while since I last set foot in this Belfast institution: a lavish Victorian "Liquor Saloon", owned and maintained by the National Trust. Trade was brisk, though it wasn't full exactly, and best of all there were three handpumps for Whitewater beer, including my first encounter with Belfast Black on cask. It's not quite as good as Fuller's London Porter, but it's really not far off. It has that sour plums-and-damsons complexity next to the chocolate and liquorice. Perhaps it was just as well there was only time for one: having it in a busy bar full of Guinness drinkers started to induce money-changers-in-the-temple feelings in me. There could have been spillage.

And then it was back aboard the Enterprise and home to Dublin at warp factor 0.0000001. In a way I'm a little let down by what I found. Belfast isn't quite the quality drinking city I was expecting it to be. There are no pubs with extensive world-beers selections like I've seen in CAMRA-award-winners in Great Britain, and local cask ale seems relatively hard come by. The Crown is deserving of a visit all by itself, but beyond that: caveat crawlor.