02 September 2013

JW Sweetman: an appraisal

A bit over eight years ago I wrote a post called "Messrs Maguire: an appraisal", a diatribe on Dublin's only brewpub composed in my usual high-handed snobby style, disappointed that what should be a jewel of the beer scene in this beery city was not living up to its potential. The root cause, I guess, was the Master of the Universe whose name was on the deeds of the building. He was one of the property élite during Ireland's boom years, and Messrs Maguire opened its doors in the closing years of the 20th century, just as the Celtic Tiger began to stretch its legs.

We can consider ourselves lucky that the Georgian frontage of 1 and 2 Burgh Quay, overlooking O'Connell Bridge, survived at all in the often corrupt and heritage-hostile development environment of 1990s Ireland. The original planning application dated 7th September 1995 called for the complete demolition of the buildings and their replacement with "new four storey public house/restaurants and ancillary services over a self contained basement nightclub". The drawings are not available online but I suspect that the monstrous O'Connell Bridge House next door gives us an idea of how the character of the quay might have been changed. Thankfully, Dublin Corporation refused the application. The subsequent submission, made on 7th February 1997, was no longer a demolition but "Restoration and renovation", keeping the number of main storeys to the original three.

Whether a microbrewery was always part of the plans I cannot say. And how they manoeuvred it inside is another mystery. The kit still bears the boilerplates of beer engineering supremo Brendan Dobbin and the vessels are of a size which suggests the walls and floors were installed around them. The showpiece mashtun and kettle are on display in the front window while the more functional stainless fermentation vessels sit below the pavement above, peekable-at from the basement bar.

Near neighbour The Irish Times makes its first mention of Messrs Maguire in the weekend supplement of 7th November 1998, in a scattergun piece on beer, brewing and food written by the late Michael Jackson of Beer Hunter fame. He cites it -- "opening in the next few weeks" -- as an indicator of the flavour-driven revolution happening in Irish beer. It's probably safe to assume that the grand opening of Messrs Maguire was in time for Christmas 1998. The 'Times's end-of-year review published on 29th December poignantly marks '98 as a good year for "super-pubs", boasting that "Zanzibar, Pravda, Life, Messrs Maguire and the Odeon in Dublin continue to give the now passé night-club scene a run for its money". All were casualties of the overblown economy, mostly early ones too. Only the Odeon survives at time of writing, though it has spent more time closed than open in recent years.

The Irish Times, 6th February 1999
I don't remember my first visit to Messrs Maguire, only that I would not have left a new Dublin brewpub unvisited for very long, especially since I was living 200 metres away at the time, in the Front Square of Trinity College. My dominant memory of the early days were of Dublin Pale -- a so-so brownish orange ale which fascinated me solely because it came from a handpump like what you get in England. I also recall a lending library made up of first editions of great Irish works of literature, available free to customers on payment of a deposit. The cask ale and the library, like my enchantment with Messrs Maguire, didn't last very long. It soon became clear that the owners had little regard for the brewing side and though there was always at least one house beer on tap, it was otherwise just another loud and uncomfortable swill-slinging Dublin drinking barn. Which is where this blog came in in May 2005.

A lot of water has passed under O'Connell Bridge since then. There was a brief experiment with bottled beer in 2007, never to be repeated and doing nothing for the pub's reputation among beer fanatics. The brewery spent its tenth birthday on hiatus following a decision by its second incumbent -- Cuilán Loughnane -- to swear off the nightmare daily commute from Tipperary and open his own brewery closer to home, choosing to produce Messrs Maguire beer there instead. This was followed by a short renaissance a couple of years ago when the neglected kit was fired up again under new brewer Mel, and a genuine effort was made to turn the place around. Unfortunately, this effort did not even have time to peter out properly as the macroeconomic tide which bitchslapped Ireland in 2010 hit home on Burgh Quay two years later.  Our absentee plutocrat had all of his toys rounded up and taken away by the government, leaving him with the shirt on his back and, bizarrely, the Messrs Maguire brand name.

Fortunately for us the drinkers, the pub didn't stay closed for long and its new state-sponsored management seems determined to make the obvious use of it that we've so long been wanting to see. The current head brewer is Rob Hopkins (with his new Dunkel, right), who made a name for himself under his Barrelhead brand, a pale ale which is always a welcome sight when it shows up on the festival circuit. I thought it was only fair to give the brewery a bit of time to establish itself,  hence the delay in writing about any of its beers.

(The JW Sweetman name, incidentally, is taken from one of Dublin's many defunct breweries, though there's no other connection. The "Est. 1756" on the new logo seems based on nothing other than a juvenile nose-thumb at central Dublin's other brewery a mile upriver.)

Though the brewing strategy doesn't seem to have quite dovetailed with the printing of menus, it seems that the plan at the moment is to have four permanent house beers plus a seasonal, and guests from other craft breweries. The macros haven't gone away but they seem to be getting rather marginalised and look like very poor value against the €4 house pints.

Nothing much to frighten the horses in the permanent line-up: a tasty crisp pale Weiss brewed with Weihenstephaner yeast is the token yellow beer. It balances nicely the dry grain and sharp fizz against some softer and sweeter banana and clove rock. The Red is a pumped-up muscleman version of this often insipid style, laying on thick unctuous strawberry paste and toffee. The brewery has plans to nitrogenate this when the equipment arrives but I think that would be a mistake -- it's just on the drinkable side of sticky as-is and making it denser will only make it worse.

The top seller, and with reasons beyond those of beer style fashion, is the Pale Ale. This is a dark amber beer and more in the marmaladey English IPA style to my mind than anything zingy and American. The texture is rounded and smooth, supporting gentle notes of mango from the hops and nursery sweeties from the caramelised malt. I'm reminded strongly of the aforementioned Barrelhead Pale Ale, and I think I'd have accredited it as one of Rob's beers without knowing he was involved. The one that really took me by surprise when I first met it, however, is JW Sweetman's Porter. It's a crazy fruit bomb with a highly complicated mix of lavender, liquorice, chocolate, rosewater and coffee -- exactly the sort of flavour combination that makes the dark beers from The Kernel best of breed. I'm stunned to find something of that calibre on my doorstep, though I really shouldn't be. Rob was making scary noises about taking this off and replacing it with a permanent stout, so beware: it may not last. Relax into a few pints of it while you can.

The brewery staged an open house recently for the launch of the newest seasonal on their rotation. It's called Dunkel and is a dark wheat beer. There's an interesting mix in the 5% ABV dark red affair: it has a similar subtle banana flavour to the Weiss, having been brewed with the same yeast, but there's also a major dry roasty character to it, lending it some of the profile of a schwarzbier. It's a little too fizzy to drink quickly, but when the gas is swirled out of it a bit you get something a cut above most of the commercial dark wheat beers knocking around. A few of us hangers-on also got a sneaky taste of the new seasonal, still in the tanks. The working title is Kölsch, though I don't know if that's what they'll eventually go with. It's properly crisp and grainy with a slight sulphurous nose and, other than a lack of the smoothness, only a mild appley flavour makes it less than an authentic-tasting experience. Still a good beer, however, and likely to improve with a little more age.

With great value beers across numerous styles and of a quality ranging from good to excellent plus decent food, enthusiastic staff, and a central location, JW Sweetman is doing pretty much everything you'd want from a city brewpub, which is just as well since it's the only one in Dublin. Long may this current incarnation continue.

This post is offered on foot of Irish Craft Beer Week and as a contribution to Boak and Bailey's long reads unproject. Please note that this paragraph is to be included in the computation of the minimum acceptable word count. So it is.


  1. Ok John, how much free beer did they promise you?

    1. Bit gushy is it? Meh. Criticise after you've had some of that porter.

  2. Professor Pie-Tin1:36 pm

    Another enjoyable read - thanks for all the valuable research you do on my behalf for my occasional booze-crawls around the capital.
    And Amshterdam too !

    1. All part of the service. More local beer ramblings coming up on Wednesday.

  3. The porter wasn't available when we were there a couple of weeks ago, dammit, but the pale ale really was superb. I can wholeheartedly second a recommendation for that one.

    1. Glad you enjoyed, Darren.

  4. Ok, "macroeconomic tide which bitchslapped Ireland" is one of the best lines I've read in a blog post in a long time.

  5. Agree whole heartedly with you John. The kitchen could do with a kick in the pants (the pork scratchings are an abomination) but the beers are fantastic. At €4 a pint (and now with growler fills too) it's a great spot.

  6. Hope I get to try the porter before it goes off the list; even more so given your review.

    Incidentally the kolsch is already listed on the tasting tray sheet. 5 euro for 5 beer samples a very fair price.

    And the pale ale was fantastic when sampled from Reuben's growler.

    1. Yes, I saw the Kölsch on tap at the festival this weekend.