02 December 2016

They don't know Jack

Session logoI had thought that 2016 was going to be the year of Dublin brewing but sadly there hasn't been the boom I anticipated. It's great that Hope is now in full production in Donaghmede, and the Stone Barrel/Third Circle joint venture must be nearing completion, but there's just one other new brewery: Jack Smyth's on the Greenhills Road.

The brewery is an offshoot of Gallagher's Boxty House, a Temple Bar institution, serving potato pancakes to tourists since the 1980s. I'd never been in, but the promise of new Dublin-brewed beer was enough to get me over the threshold one evening last month. There's quite a decent selection of draught beers, with the two Jack Smyth's offerings at the front of the row of taps. I ordered Jack Smyth's Gold to begin with and watched as my server poured me a glass of Independent Brewing's Connemara Pale Ale. I tasted it just to be sure -- that unmistakable big grapefruit hit -- before bringing it back to the bar to ask another member of staff to change it for me.

The Gold is a dark blonde ale, slightly hazy, and with a pleasant lemon cookie aroma. That biscuit effect is the first thing I noticed and there's also a warm Belgian-style fruity ester quality plus a solid kick of spinach bitterness in the finish. All of which would make for a lovely beer if they weren't also accompanied by a harsh soapy perfume flavour, one which brought laundry detergent to mind with every sip. Worst of all, the soapiness builds on the palate as the beer goes along, eventually dominating the whole flavour. A half of this was plenty for me.

To follow, a half of Jack Smyth's Stout. They'd made a mess of my food order so this one was on the house while I waited. There was a bit of consternation when I asked what the ABV was: nobody knew and it wasn't written down anywhere. A phonecall was made. Somebody went to the cellar to check the label on the keg, and word eventually came back that it's 4.6% ABV. Now we know.

I was happy that it wasn't served nitrogenated, although the head retention was very poor and it looked a bit sad in the glass. It smelled sweetly of treacle and caramel though the first impression on tasting was a very dry carbonic bite. There's a bit of milk chocolate and a mild metallic tang which together make for a passable flavour, but it's a little bit like first-effort homebrew: there's no depth to it and the body is thin, making it feel cheap. Not far away you can get far superior porters and stouts at JW Sweetman and The Porterhouse. Jack Smyth's has a bit of work to do to reach that standard, but that's where it should be aiming.

The standard of Dublin porter is an issue that should concern every right-thinking drinker in this town. I often wonder what we lost when the city's medium-sized industrial breweries closed down during the great shake-out of Irish brewing between 1860 and 1960. For The Session this month, Stan Hieronymous is asking us to pick four people, living or dead, to have dinner with, as well as the beers to be served. I'd love to have a director each from the Phoenix Brewery, Watkins, Findlater and The Anchor, from let's say 1890 when business was booming for all of them, to discuss the shape of the industry over a few pints of their respective porters. From our vantage point in the 21st century, the tumble of Dublin porter brewing towards a (brief) monopoly by 1950 seems inevitable, but I'm sure they didn't see it like that back then. What did they think was securing their place in the market? Could they have done anything differently and stayed afloat longer? Details of how these breweries operated is frustratingly scarce: it would be enlightening to get a first-person perspective on it. There might even be a lesson or two in there for Dublin's modern day brewers.

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