04 July 2014

Drink the past

Bill asks us to make a connection to beers-gone-by for this round of The Session. With beer being a high-volume, rapid-turnover product its history is plentiful and varied. The contexts in which people have brewed and drunk beer, the types they made and the ingredients they used are manifold. In Dublin, porter looms over all. What Flann O'Brien aptly called "The Workman's Friend" was the first style to be made in industrial quantities to meet the needs of large urban population centres. And in maritime cities like London and Dublin, the plain people's drink went with the plain people's food: shellfish. Oysters, mussels, whelks and whatever else could be harvested from the shore in quantity and turned into food with minimal preparation. The Porterhouse has long commemorated this tradition in its Oyster Stout but more recently the Mourne Seafood restaurant chain commissioned one from the Whitewater Brewery in Co. Down. The company has just opened an outlet in the Dublin docklands, making Mourne Oyster Stout available south of the border for the first time.

It's a wonderfully velvety stout, smooth even by the standards of nitrogenated beer. Rich milk chocolate dominates the flavour but there's also a gentle green vegetal hop flavour in the background. A simple and pleasant beer overall, lacking the depth and complexity of the Porterhouse one, perhaps, but not likely to interfere with the taste of your seafood either. On the downside, a pint of this will set you back a whopping €6 so to get your money's worth you'd better enjoy the picturesque setting while you sup.

Porter spent almost two centuries as Dublin's beer of choice before its place was eventually taken by lager and, according to the most recent figures I've seen, two out of every three pints consumed in Ireland these days is lager. While Diageo and Heineken have most of that market sewn up between them, they weren't the first to produce golden cool-fermented beer for the Irish palate. That honour is normally accorded to the Dartry Brewery, in what's now a leafy residential suburb of south Dublin.

Reporting on this Teutonic curiosity while it was still under construction at the beginning of 1891, The Irish Times does note1 that the founder, Herr Stoer, is seeking to meet an already-existing local demand for lager. Much like the porter brewers over a century previously, in fact. The Dartry Brewery was in a converted mill by the River Dodder and utilised the millwheel to run its machinery. "One of the special features claimed for the new beer," says our Victorian churnalist, "will be its freedom from injurious clarifying ingredients which are so much used in many other beers". The reader is advised that it may be February by the time this slow-to-produce foreign style is available for drinking, and indeed it's May before an ad in the 'Times2 lists the nine Dublin pubs where it's available, including Neary's of Chatham Street, the only one still trading today under the same name. Also in the spring of 1891 The Whiskey Trade Review sent its reporter to Dartry3, who gushed "We have been Lager beer drinkers in many places and many climes, but never tasted a finer quality than the glass with which we toasted 'Success to the Dartry Lager Brewery' of Messrs. Stoer and Sons, Upper Rathmines, Dublin."

The fine tradition of riverside brewing in Dublin continues today at JW Sweetman on the Liffey quays, though they have yet to harness the free fluvial power that runs past the conditioning tanks in the basement every day. As it happens, they have a new lager on the taps: Maracanã, brewed for thirsty football fans in the pub for the World Cup. It passes the colour test for an accessible lager: perfectly clear and medium gold. I wish everything else about it were as clean. The hopping has been done generously so there's lots of wax and grass. But there's also a very high sweetness: spun sugar, caramel and a hint of butterscotch too. The effect isn't helped by a sweet-sour green apple aroma. It's back to lager school for Mr Sweetman, I'm afraid. A rare misstep, and it's just as well the whole brewery isn't dependent on this one brew for its success.

A little over two years after the Dartry Brewery began selling lager to the Dublin public, a terse notice appeared on the back page of the paper4:
FOR SALE: The Dublin Lager Beer Brewery, situated at Dartry, Rathmines, in full working order. An enterprising party with capital would find it a very good investment. 
And with that questionable claim, Ireland's first lager brewery vanished into history.

1. The Irish Times, 8th January 1891, p.7
2. 26th May, p.7
3. Reproduced in The Weekly Irish Times, 28th March 1891, p.6
4.  The Irish Times, 12th August 1893, p.8

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