Tony Eklof, originally from New England, has settled in Clonakilty after a career as a librarian at University College Dublin. His knowledge and passion for wine has been inspired by frequent visits to the wine growing regions of the continent, particularly Italy and France.
“Goodbye to the port and brandy, to the vodka and the stag, to the Smithwick and the Harpic, the bottle, draught and keg.” (Christy Moore)
This month, your Wine Buff has become the Beer Buff. There are plenty of post-Christmas articles to advise you on lower-range wines at the moment, so I thought I would concentrate on the growing number of beers available on the Irish market. Many of today’s beers are brewed to complement a meal. Traditionally lagers or lighter beers go particularly well with Asian cuisine, while ales are good with heartier fare such as meat pies.
When I first arrived in Ireland all those years ago, Guinness was the major player among beers, followed by a number of ales, Smithwicks, Double Diamond, McCardles from Dundalk, and Bass. Your choice of lager was even more limited, Harp, and if memory serves, Carling Black Label. And that was pretty much it. How different it all is now. There are dozens, possibly hundreds of beers available now, brewed in all corners of the world and ranging from low-alcohol to the very strong. (A Scottish brewery claims to make the strongest beer in the world, more powerful than some whiskeys, and not the sort of beverage to choose for what the English call ‘a session ale’.
Many of the popular Belgian beers on the market are very strong and it is advisable to check the label as there is a big difference between the 4.3 alcohol level, which for some bizarre reason is standard for most Irish beers, and the seven per cent or even higher of Belgian monastic ales. My favourite Belgian is the excellent Leffe Blonde, a medium strength beer widely available. One of my favourite bars is the 17th c. Roy d’Espagne in Brussels where Leffe, Blonde or Brune, is the house beer, served up by immaculate waiters in old-fashioned aprons. The bar occupies one corner of the stunningly beautiful Grand Place in Brussels.
Whether you are shopping for wine or beer, the label is your guide and will tell you the strength, the ingredients, and importantly, the source. Germany famously has a 16th c. law that prohibits unusual ingredients in the beer. As for the source, look out for ‘brewed under licence’ on a beer label. It warns you that the Carlsberg you are purchasing is brewed in Dublin and not in Copenhagen. Would you drink Chianti made in Spain? My favourite example for you is Coors, now widely available in Ireland.
Coors was a cult beer in the USA and famously a favourite of one Richard M. Nixon! The selling point of Coors is that it is brewed in the Rocky Mountains using the fresh water of the region. The packaging here invites you to enjoy ‘the Rocky Mountain experience’ even though it is brewed in the UK by a beer monolith, Molson-Coors. Molson, new to the market, advertises itself as Canadian beer but is a watered-down version brewed over here, so how it gets away with calling itself Canadian, I don’t know. Much more appealing is the independently owned Moosehead brewed in New Brunswick. I saw pictures in the current issue of ‘Food and Wine Magazine’ of celebrities attending the launch to the Irish market of the iconic French beer, Kronenbourg. It will be interesting to see if it is the real deal, or just another ‘brewed under licence.’ One other trend I dislike is that of serving beer ice cold. It is a ploy so that you can’t actually taste the beer! Back to the aforementioned Coors, which advertises on the pack, ‘there is cold and then there is damme (sic) cold!’
Real beer lovers have an organisation now with over 150,000 members called CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale. They are responsible for pretty much turning the tide in the UK against big takeovers and bad beer and for promoting locally brewed ‘craft beers’. Interestingly the movement was founded by four guys having a drink in a bar in Dunquin, on the Dingle Peninsular. If you see a CAMRA award noted on a beer it is a good sign.
Recently there has been a marked increase in the number of small micro- breweries in Ireland. These can be found in all corners of Ireland including Dingle, Kilcock, and Dungarvan. Another phenomenon has been the rise in popularity of wheat beers, mostly brewed in Germany. These are normally served in their own stylish glasses reflecting the Continental practice of each beer having its own specific glass.
My own favourite beer? Has to be Lowenbrau, one of the great Munich beers, although it worries me that it was recently taken over by the giant Anheuser-Busch Corporation, makers of America’s favourite beer. Taste in beer is just like taste in wine, a very personalised affair. Below are just a few of my favourites available in the West Cork area.
Slainte, Prost, Cheers, Na zdrowie!
Vedett, Belgian Pils, Next Door, Clonakilty
Badger’s Fursty Ferret (ale), SuperValu.
Tom Crean, Fresh Irish Lager, SuperValu
Samuel Adams, Boston Lager, SuperValu
Helvick Gold, Blonde Ale, (Widely available)
McGargle’s Pilsner, Matson’s Wine Store, Bandon
Skinner’s Cornish Knocker, Golden Ale Matson’s
Moorhouse, Pride of Pendle, pale ale, Matson’s