09 September 2016

Round Ireland with a thirst, part 5: Kilkenny

Journey's end is Kilkenny, one of my favourite cities in Ireland, if you can avoid the stag and hen parties. A large part of town is still occupied by the defunct Smithwick's brewery (last seen in this post) and there have been moves by independent players over the years to bring a bit of authenticity back to Kilkenny's reputation as a city of beer. In 2014 local boy Ger Costello launched his own brand of red ale around the pubs of Kilkenny and it's still going strong though a standalone brewery has yet to materialise.

Now another approach has been taken by none other than the heirs of the Smithwick family themselves, again with a contract-brewed red ale, released under their "Sullivan's" marque.

This isn't the family's first attempt to break into the independent beer scene. Back in the late 1990s, during the first flush of Irish microbrewing, the Smithwicks intended to open their own brewery in Kilkenny, as well as a brewpub in a Dublin martello tower. The plans foundered when Diageo took exception to the words "Kilkenny" and "Smithwick" being used anywhere near beer that wasn't theirs. The Smithwicks became a successful legal dynasty after leaving brewing so one assumes that this time out they've done their homework on the intellectual property side. Diageo may no longer brew in the marble city but they still have a prominent visitors' centre, and the close association of the Smithwick's and Kilkenny beer brands with the town is something I imagine they'll want to keep as exclusive as they can.

Sullivan's has set up across the river in an ex-garden centre next door to The Wine Centre on John Street. Last week the company brought a group of media types down for an overnighter and a looksee. The Taproom is the brand's front-of-house, a small bar with a spacious back yard and a mural telling the story of the old Sullivan brewery in Kilkenny, related to the Smithwicks through marriage. Sullivan's was subsumed into the Smithwick's brewery in 1918 after 216 years of trading, though the family has retained the rights to the name. There's a Speidel pilot kit on site but plans for a full production facility across the courtyard are still, well, plans, with beer being produced at Boyne Brewhouse for the moment. Former Smithwick's Head Brewer Ian Hamilton has been recruited to oversee that side of the operation.

The first beer out is called Maltings (here's why) and it's 4% ABV. It's darker than your typical Irish red, a deep shade of garnet, almost brown. The speciality grains are Cara Red and roast barley and they do all the heavy lifting in the flavour, leaving it with a lot of residual caramelised sugars and a hefty, almost burnt, roasted quality. The hops represent as only a very slight green vegetal tang, in the aroma and on the finish. I was pleasantly surprised to find that despite the sweetness it's still quite sessionable -- the roastiness dries it out enough to keep the caramel from sticking to your palate.

One could make the case that the last thing Irish beer needs is another mid-strength caramelly red ale, but if it's going to get one, it may as well be this.

The Maltings was on draught but in the Taproom fridge there was another Sullivan's beer, Birchfield Barley Wine. Ian made this on the Spiedel so it's not yet a commercial brew, evidenced in part by the somewhat vague "ABV 7.8-8.1%" on the label. I admit I hadn't made the connection to Smithwick's Barley Wine but Ian said that the recipe was influenced by that beer, and another late example of the style he used to make, Phoenix Barley Wine.

It's unsurprisi