01 July 2016

Sunday mass

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Go to the Inn on any Friday night
And listen to them while they're getting tight
At the expense of him who stands them drinks,
The Mass-Observer with the Hillman Minx.
-- John Betjeman, The Dear Old Village (1954)
I don't have a Hillman Minx, or money to buy pints for the locals. Just a notepad and a set of instructions from this month's Session taskmasters Boak and Bailey. And I figured Friday night would be a terrible time to do this anywhere but a brightly-lit suburban pub where there's probably nothing I want to drink. Hell with that.

Early doors on a Sunday is the best time to be in the pub, for any number of reasons. On this particular Sunday I crossed town to visit WJ Kavanagh's, partly out of guilt because I hadn't been to this fine establishment in far too long, and it was also promising some new beers.

It was around 1pm when I walked in and my first shout was Summer Days, a new Session IPA from Eight Degrees and one which immediately invites parallels with their excellent Grand Stretch from last year. This one is paler, for one thing, hazy too and with a certain amount of yeast fluff in the taste, I thought. Otherwise, however, there's a big tangerine centre, edged with biting grapefruit. After a longish cycle on a warm day it was fantastically refreshing when cold but does take a turn for the watery as it warms. I don't think it's as good as Grand Stretch and it's mainly the big bitterness that wasn't to my taste. Though the €6 price tag also went a long way to reduce its sessionability.

With that done, it was down to work.

  • How many people are drinking?
A rough count of the chairs suggested that Kavanagh's seats about 150: it's not a small place and, as is often the case with Dublin pubs, is made up of several premises knocked together over the years -- an inevitable side-effect of the fixed number of pub licences. For a publican in search of more trade, expanding your bar is much more cost effective than opening a new one.

However, all the tables were empty when I arrived and there was just one other punter at the bar -- hi Deb! In total, 15 souls were present during the course of the study. A group of three mature visitors to Dublin had a rendez-vous with a local friend who was their guide for the day. They were in for food and a couple of drinks before going off to do some tourism.

Next in were a young couple and their baby in a pram, meeting up with two childless friends of the same age. The atmosphere at their table had the feel of a regular Sunday catch-up. 

Shortly after they settled in, two well-to-do early-middle-age Dubs sauntered in in fancy hiking gear, designer sunglasses perched on their crowns. They had plainly never been here before and needed to know if food was available before they took to a table to peruse the menus over pints of water.

Of the same age and social class were an American couple who came in next and sat along the bar from me, but only after himself had given the taps a thorough inspection. "Oh wow! Cask!" It was almost time for them to go home to San Francisco and this was the first cask beer they'd seen in Ireland. He was definitely staying for some of that. 

Last of my subjects was an elderly gentleman wrapped up in a raincoat and walking with a stick. He seemed to be known to the staff and I wouldn't have been at all surprised if he had been drinking there since before it was a specialist beer pub.

And there was also your correspondent, representing the lone ticker demographic. Speaking of which, time for another pint.

Alligator IPA is new from Trouble Brewing. Appropriately for the name it's swampy in appearance -- a dark amber -- and with a heavy 5.7% ABV that is definitely borne out in the taste. There's a dense and warming caramel followed by a harshly bitter spiciness, but in front of all of this is that yeast: this alligator has a seriously unpleasant bite which makes it very difficult to concentrate on anything else. Cleaned up you'd have a good robust amber ale; as-is it just doesn't hold up well.

To answer the second part of the first question, ten of the fifteen people in the pub are actually drinking, though disappointingly little of it was beer.

  • Which beers are on tap, and which are people actually drinking?
Positioned at the bar I was able to conduct a full census of the 23 working taps (one was out of action):
17 were from independent Irish breweries, 5 quality imports, plus Guinness.
21 of the taps were hooked up to kegs and then there were two cask handpulls -- one pouring Irish and the other an import.
The styles broke down as 4 IPAs, 4 pale ales, 4 red/amber ales, 3 stout/porters, 2 ciders, 2 lagers, 2 wheat beers then one each of saison and sour beer.

The table of four with the pram stuck to water the whole time. They left as soon as they'd finished their food. Our American cask enthusiast had the cask Irish red while his companion took the English cider on cask next to it. The group of older friends bought mixed rounds of red ale and shandy. Having finished their initial pints of water, the well-to-do couple opted for a bottle of prosecco while the elderly gent, purely to remove any sense of plausibility from my observations, partook of a single glass of rosé wine. And two pints of IPA (so far) for the beer geek.

I was a little surprised at the representation of red beers in the line-up. Sure who drinks red nowadays? But the anecdotal evidence here would strongly suggest that red ale has not yet had its day.

  • What are they eating?
Everyone except the two lone men did have food. The Kavanagh's menu is big on pub classics and that's what I saw being handed out: wings, a burger, steak sandwiches, fish and chips and several salads. On Sunday the menu is enhanced by a roast dinner for €15 but there didn't seem to be any takers.

  • How are they passing the time?
Not much to report here. They talked to each other. You might have thought that Sunday afternoon is a good time for newspapers, crosswords or board games in the pub, but not this place. As far as I could see, board games are not supplied at Kavanagh's.

  • What are the topics of conversation?
Sitting at the bar while most everyone else was scattered around meant I didn't overhear much. From the three visitors and their local friend there was much boisterous laughter, and Team Pram was also excited, handing around photos on phones. I got more detail from the Americans along the bar and it was very much The Sort Of Things You Talk About On Holiday, taking conversational cues from the surroundings including the food options and, with Euro 2016 in the early stages, the comparative rules of ball games.

  • How is the pub decorated?
WJ Kavanagh's has always seemed to have a bit of an incongruous Tex-Mex theme to me, probably traceable back to several owners ago. There are some stucco'd walls and exposed hardwood joists for that hacienda look. But turn another way and you'll find Brooklynesque bare brick and elsewhere upmarket Farrow-and-Ball style flock wallpaper. Eclectic covers it, I think. This is mostly adorned with breweriana -- signs advertising the cutting edge brands of fifteen years ago like Samuel Adams and Delirium Tremens, as well as hipper ones such as BrewDog and Naparbier. A single vintage metal tobacco ad clings to one corner, in perpetual fear of the screwdriver.

  • How many TVs are there and what are they showing?
Surprisingly for a large pub just around the corner from Croke Park there are only two, modestly sized, TVs. Both are showing the football, to the interest of nobody much. 

  • Are there pot plants, parrots, spittoons?
Short answer: no. But it's interesting how it has been kitted out, and I'm sure this is one of those features that are common to urban pubs but rarely noticed: everything is subtly nailed down and secured; nothing is hanging loose to be idly torn or knocked onto the floor. The pub doesn't look at all sparse, but if you wanted to trash the place you'd find it tough to gather materials for doing so.

  • How many smokers are there? And vapers?
Only one: our rosé-drinking buddy went out to the small smoking terrace for a cigarette.

  • Is there a dartboard, pool table or quiz machine, and are they in use?
No on all of these. Plenty of pubs have pool tables but I don't think I've ever seen a dartboard in Dublin, and certainly not in the city centre. Gambling machines are mercifully illegal.
I deemed the study to be completed at 3.30pm and ordered a third pint to celebrate: the Irish red on cask.

Rouge is the name, from White Gypsy brewery. Presumably it's a relative of, or a twist upon, their usual red ale Ruby. It arrived a perfect clear copper colour, unsparklered so filled pleasingly to the brim. And while the badge may say Irish red, this is most definitely an English-style brown bitter, and a bloody good one at that. It is incredibly tannic: throat-closingly dry and scouring the mouth clean of moisture. A green herbal leaf effect adds a bitterness which enhances the similarity to builder-strength stewed black tea. My pint could have been cooler, and with a touch more condition, but it was highly enjoyable in its one-dimensional way.

As I marvelled at this, four inner city Dublin yoofs sauntered in, clad in their uniform grey tracksuits. While certainly local, I suspect they were also new to the pub because the selection of taps flummoxed them. Having strolled the length of the bar, exchanged confused looks, and turned on the heels of the their Adidas, they made for the door. "Do yiz do cocktails?" said one incredulously over his shoulder, as a disparaging remark rather than a question. And then, as the door swept closed behind him, "I love the origami."

A malapropism? Or is origami the latest front in the class war? Somebody should do a study.

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