29 November 2014

'Spoons, man

One of the more momentous events of the past year was the arrival of British pub chain JD Wetherspoon to Ireland. The original surprise announcement was made in August 2013 and news came through by the end of the year that the first branch would be in the well-heeled south Dublin suburb of Blackrock. So this wasn't going to be one of those Wild West Wetherspoons, run down and gum-stained, that one occasionally encounters across the water. Though they didn't make it explicit, I suspect the intention was for this to be both pilot fish and flagship all under one enormous roof.

The doors of The Three Tun Tavern opened in early July, by which stage news of the next phase of the expansion was trickling out. More Irish Wetherspoons are expected in Dublin, Cork and further abroad next year, and the second Dublin outlet opens three stops down the DART line in Dún Laoghaire later this month. For the moment, however, The Three Tun Tavern remains one of a kind.

It was August by the time I made it along, late afternoon on a sunny Friday. When it's quiet you really get a feel for the size of the place: a vast wooden floored bearpit with a long bar at the centre and more secluded carpeted areas on different levels off to the sides. I had a slight awww moment when I noticed the silent TV screens were set to RTÉ News Now rather than Sky, as would be normal in the UK. Lots of staff were milling about, far more than there were customers. I guess the rotas were still in the planning phase. A drink, then.

Twelve handpumps makes it easily the caskiest pub in the country, though the everyday selection isn't really up to much: rather mainstream humdrum large-regional British ales, the sort of stuff that the company can pile very high and sell exceedingly cheap. I thought that Adnams Ghost Ship would be a safe bet, having always loved the bottled version but it just felt tired and sickly on cask. Not the refresher I was after that particular afternoon.

Having decided there was nothing on cask I wanted and moving over to the keg taps, the first one to catch my interest was DNA, that oddity from Charles Wells made with a dash of Dogfish Head IPA. My pint arrived a cheery clear copper colour but dear lord it was cold. As the condensation cascaded onto my table that's when I noticed the pub doesn't put beermats out, though they are available. Once it was warm enough for me to taste something I found it quite a subtle and refreshing beer. Its American heritage is there in the sherbety fruit tones, though there's nothing you'd actually call bitter or citrus, and then there's a rising caramel aftermath meaning that it soon starts tasting as brown as it looks. DNA offers a few seconds of enjoyment but just gets boring after that. I understand that the recipe has been revised since the summer so your mileage will obviously vary, if you haven't already been put off it.

I had time for one more pint and opted for Revisionist Lager, holding out possibly naive hopes for Marston's craftified series of beers. This is medium gold and the point-of-sale material promises dry-hopping with Admiral and Boadicea hops. I couldn't wait to get stuck in. Ow my teeth! So very, very cold. I suppose with a lager it's part of the spec, a reasonable demand of the customer base. I cupped my hands around the glass and gingerly took another sip. There's definitely some hop action up front: a sort of chew-sweet artificial fruitiness, but there's not much behind it. No malt, for one thing, which perhaps isn't that surprising at a mere 4% ABV. I kept searching for more taste, letting the beer warm, until notes of butter began creeping in and I knew I was on to a loser. I drained the glass and went on my way.

I wasn't expecting to be back as soon as October, thinking that the chain wouldn't bother with including Ireland in the yearly cycle of special beer festivals. But they did, and on Friday 17th October the first beers from the Wetherspoon International Real-Ale Festival went on sale in Dublin. I really enjoyed my time at this event in Belfast last year so headed straight for Blackrock early in the afternoon of day two.

Just five to pick from, and my first choice was the Hook Norton / Brew Moon Real Antipodean, a 4% ABV golden ale. That's getting into the airy upper reaches for English beer of this style but this was definitely rather thinner than I expected. Still, a lovely spiced orange aroma opened its account and there's a similar sort of fruit flavour, lots of light sherbet and then a cheeky invigorating bitterness right at the end. The hops are Motueka and Wakatu and really didn't have much that was typically New Zealandish about them, but they still worked nicely together. It's another one to finish quickly however: bath salts and orange cordial started to come out as it warmed. Just as well I had more to try.

Meanwhile, the wife opted for the strongest beer on the menu: Freak of Nature double IPA, brewed by Bateman's and based on an original by North Carolina's Wicked Weed brewery. 7.5% ABV and a gorgeous rich gold-amber colour. What could possibly go wrong here? Everything. Aside from the forgiveable powerful alcohol heat there was a massive hit of phenols: pure TCP yuck coating everything. Where it was possible to taste the beer underneath it was all sweet and syrupy. The bottom line is no fresh American hop loveliness, just anguish and despair. Was the problem in the recipe, the brewing or the serving? I don't know. The total trooper I married did manage to get through the entire half pint, however. What a hero.

After that I lost my nerve on risking whole pints and opted for the, admittedly wonderful, three thirds for the price of a pint. We settled in front of the real fire while I set about them.

On the left of the picture, the first was another down-under collaboration: Two Birds Golden Ale, by the Melbourne brewery of the same name, brewed at Banks's. It's a reddish sort of gold and that's probably its most interesting feature. A bit of golden syrup malt, maybe, but otherwise harmless and bland. Neither bells nor whistles in JW Lees John Willie's 100 (far right) either. This is brown bitter of the very brownest sort, a one dimensional toffee pudding that had nothing wrong with it, but I was glad I only had a small glass to work through all the same. And in the middle Abbaye Blonde brewed at Shepherd Neame with input from Belgium's Val-Dieu brewery. This 6%-er was pretty good, all biscuits and bubblegum, sprinkled with honey and cereal. No Belgian stickiness, just good, clean, drinkable golden ale.

My advice to myself for these Wetherspoon collaboration sets is to look out for the ones brewed at Adnams. They tend to be a cut above the others. There was only one on this list, a collaboration with SixPoint called Bklyn Bitter. The pumpclip was present but flagged as "coming soon" and the helpful barman said he expected it to be pouring later that evening. We were in no rush. A wander up the street brought us to The Dark Horse where Goodbye Blue Monday was pouring on cask, throwing all of the Wetherspoon offerings far into the shade. We returned to The Three Tun Tavern just after six to find the afternoon's families had cleared out and the place was now heaving with determined evening drinkers. 6pm on a Saturday seems to be the time when Blackrock turns up its rugby shirt collar and heads to the pub. We found a space in a corner and I brought us two pints of Bklyn.

It didn't let me down. Maybe a little over-egged at 5.5% ABV while tasting far more safe and sessionable, this is rose gold in colour and smells enticingly of sulphur and black tea. It's tannins a-go-go the way Adnams does best, more a lemon tea effect on tasting, when the hopping kicks in, and hitting the back of the throat and roof of the mouth with a tannic dryness. I'd have been happy if that's all it did but there was also big rich mango juiciness and a dusting of incense spice. Phwoar. This one was well worth waiting for.

So, clearly a mixed bag at The Three Tuns, but hooray for choice. I doubt I'll be making regular forays out to Blackrock, Dún Laoghaire or Swords just to go to Wetherspoon, and even if and when they open in the centre of town I can't see it becoming a destination for a night out. But just a few pints of something of Bklyn's calibre per year will do me. Welcome to Dublin, JD.

(This is my second #beerylongreads post in the current round. For the full list of contributions, see Boak and Bailey's blog here.)

27 November 2014

Brown out

I don't know if it's entirely fair to be including the fourth-biggest brewing multinational in this week's series. C&C recently set up their own brewery at headquarters in Clonmel where they're currently pumping out the rather lacklustre Clonmel 1650 lager. But before that, they took an almost-total stake in the 5 Lamps microbrewery in Dublin, a two-hander run by Brian and William, which appears to have complete freedom to brew what they like.

With the lack of diktats comes a lack of logistical support, I guess, which is why the tap badge in The Norseman for The Tenters Brown Ale, their latest, was a circle of paper sellotaped to the keg font, with the name picked out on a porta