07 December 2015

What Arthur did next

The Guinness glasnost initiative has gathered pace over the last year and a bit, from a handful of nosy parkers being shown round the pilot brewery last September to now: the opening of a dedicated bar for serving beers directly from that brewery. Under the new dispensation it's possible to taste Guinness beer which bypasses the multitude of impedances that have, for decades if not centuries, separated the brewers' handiwork from the drinkers' mouths. New hire Jason Carroll, having previously been getting creative at Franciscan Well, is now tasked with brewing fun and exciting, and possibly even unGuinnessy, things, ten hectolitres at a time, for serving at The Open Gate. As he tells it, he has a free hand, access to all the technology and raw materials that Diageo commands and, I think crucially, is brewing at sale strength rather than high gravity. It's an exciting vista and when they invited me to one of their launch evenings to have a look and a taste and a chat, I jumped at it.

The Open Gate has its own entrance from James's Street at the western end of the old Guinness site. The bar is a cordoned off section on a lower level of the building, looking through at fermentation vessels and pipework, though the brewhouse itself is a level up, out of sight to visitors. Decor is minimal: schoolhouse-style distressed wood-and-steel furniture and vintage brewery signage whose authenticity I don't doubt. In keeping with how normal corporate rules don't apply in this space, there's no individual branding on the eight keg fonts: mainstream Guinness and Smithwick's beers are served, but without their tacky illuminated badges: they take their place on the blackboard with the small-batch stuff.

Imperial Dunkel Weisse and Nitro IPA
One intriguing initiative of The Open Gate is to serve those beers that are brewed across the street on the big-boy kit for export but aren't marketed in Ireland. I'm sold on that idea alone. So, first off, I got to taste the much-maligned Guinness Nitro IPA, currently bringing the same bafflement and dismay to the American palate that we Irish drinkers have been experiencing with nitrokeg Guinness for years. First impression, unsurprisingly, is that it's bland and creamy, like every other smoothflow ale. There's an unpleasantly artificial perfume sharpness at the front and a bizarre dry catch in the finish, and then it's gone, leaving no aftertaste. Ordinarily, I'd be happy to leave it at that and move on, but it was free, so I asked for another, and this time took a bit more time over it. There is a proper hop character in this, buried way down and only present when it has warmed a bit. But it's not the bitterness you'd expect in an IPA brewed for Americans; it's the spicy biscuit-laden flavour you'll find in dodgy brown English bitter, though at 5.8% ABV this beer is almost double the strength of one of those. It might be interesting to try it served on cask: I think those hops would get more of an outing. But to be honest it's probably best to leave it aside and pretend it never happened, like so many other Guinness brand extensions.

There were three in-house beers on offer, and I may have detected a bit of new-brewer nerves in them as all were strong and dark. It's hard to go wrong with strong and dark, right? The weakest, at 6.4% ABV, was a Milk Stout, considerably overclocked for the style, I think. It wasn't served on nitro, but was very cold so tasted quite plain to begin with. My first impression was that it was spot-on for this generally pedestrian style, but it woke up later, revealing a sharp carbonic bite and a heavy roast that vied for supremacy with the sweet lactose tang. It's a tough sort of beer to impress with, but I guess there wasn't anything wrong with it per se.

Pictured to the left of the Nitro IPA above, there, is Open Gate Brewery's "Imperial Dunkel Weisse". So not a doppelbock or a weizenbock, then? No. They used Guinness ale yeast for this, so a fully Germanic name didn't seem appropriate. It's 8.4% ABV though doesn't taste it, with the sticky caramel foretaste balanced nicely by a properly bitter finish. It's not Aventinus but it's definitely swerving in that direction: less chewy and with more of a burnt complexity. As an experimental brewpub beer, from any brewpub, it would get a bemused thumbs up before we move on to something else.

You can't be proper craft unless you're doing some barrel ageing, and The Open Gate has got hold of a Scottish whisky barrel from presumably somewhere else in the Diageo empire, though nobody seemed to know exactly which distillery it had come from. They've brewed a dark strong ale and it had been in the cask for about two weeks when we got to it, the ABV hitting 7.4% and rising -- a special arrangement had to be put in place with the resident Revenue official and the cask remained in bond with just the spigot poking cheekily through the wire into the bar. This Barrel Beer wafts vanilla in a big way from the aroma but tastes very harshly woody, yet oddly not of whisky. There's a chewy caramel centre but not nearly enough to balance it. This guy needs bunged up and left somewhere for at least six months to mellow, I reckon. It tastes very much like a first effort.

edited to add: I tasted this again three weeks later and it was much improved: far rounder and smoother than previously, though with a bit of an appley tang.

We were all sent home with a bottle of 6.4% ABV Strong Ale which I'm guessing (though am open to correction) is the base beer that went into the whisky cask (edit: confirmed, it is). It's dark red and smells strangely rubbery: an odd mix of forest fruits and tyre fire. It's rich and heavy; toffee and caramel at the front but immediately overtaken by an almost tart bitterness with a tang of metallic molasses. This is not a nice beer; it's a serious, grown-up and old fashioned one. But that just makes it a bit of a chore to drink. I can see why you'd want to smooth out the edges in a barrel, if that is indeed what they've done.

edited to add: the old-fashioned quality shouldn't be surprising as this is a tweaked version of the Smithwick's Barley Wine recipe, last brewed at the Macardle-Moore brewery before it was closed by Diageo in 2000. It's stronger than SBW's 5.5% ABV and uses Galaxy hops which of course would have been unheard of.

So, while I'm impressed at the concept, the set-up and the scenery at The Open Gate, I remain to be impressed by the beer. On the night, I reverted to Foreign Extra Stout fairly soonish: it was still the best beer present. I hope they don't lose track of the beer as the point of the exercise. I'm also a little dismayed at the access arrangements: they're limited to opening for five hours on just Thursday and Friday evenings, and as a result, you have to book. That's fine for beer tourists looking for an alternative to the showy soullessness of The Storehouse, but I can't see Dubliners making much use of it like that. I do hope a practical solution to allow for walk-ins can be found at some stage. A new beer is promised every fortnight and it would be nice if trying it didn't mean buying a €6 advance ticket for a flight that includes it.

That said, something pale and hoppy would be good next. Is there spare sack of Mosaic lying around?

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