There is nothing quite like the sense of joy and affirmation when you meet a kindred soul. You know what I mean, someone with whom you have an instant and significant basis for connection. Many things can form such a bond… allegiance to the same sports team, love the same food or same music…. an appreciation of fine art… any of these things can facilitate a conversation that turns complete strangers into fast friends within a matter of minutes. The love and pursuit of good beer definitely falls into this category.
Certainly Ireland is known for its beer… Guinness is practically an emblem for the country. And yet the beer selection here is surprisingly limited. When I first came 2001 I found only the Irish staples- Guinness, Harp, Smithwick’s, Killkenny, Beamish and Murphy’s. Carlsberg was often seen as an import and Heineken could also be found but that was about it. When I came back in 2005 a number of industrial American beers like Bud and Coors Light had begun to make an appearance but little else had changed. But this time around (2011) I wanted something more. In the last six years I have gone from a guy who loved good beer and knew a little about it to a full on hardcore geek. Although there is certainly nothing wrong with Ireland’s tried and true staples (indeed the experience of having a proper pint in a local pub is one of the great joys that it offers) I wanted to see in advance what Ireland had to offer besides its tried and true staples.
Fortunately the Beer Mapping Project allowed me to do my research in advance. Indeed, it showed me that a nascent craft beer scene was beginning to emerge. There were two brew pubs in Dublin, one of which, Porterhouse, had several locations (in fact just last month I was thrilled to find their Wrasslers XXXX Stout on draft at a local restaurant, Agiato).
But in terms of a craft beer bars, there seemed to be only one- Against the Grain.
Located at11 Wexford Street, just south of St. Stephen’s Green, this pub is the most recent venture of the folks who founded both Bay Brewing and the Oslo Bar and Salt Box in Galway. What drew me was the fact that they boasted most of the craft beers that Ireland had to offer under a single roof. I was also interested in getting a firsthand account of how the scene was developing.
I was not disappointed. The bar boasted a large selection of 20 taps including 1 cask on beer engine and 90 some odd bottles from around the world (including the nearly impossible to get Tactical Nuclear Penguin and the even harder to get Sink the Bismarck, both from Brewdog. Of course the price tag of 60 and 80 Euros respectively allowed me to resist the temptation.
The barkeeps- Paddy (yes- that was his real name) and Sebastian- were friendly but a bit preoccupied with the lunch rush. After that thinned out we were able to really set down to the business of discussing beer.
What really fascinated me was that they both told me that neither of them was into craft at all until they took the job at Against the Grain. They rapidly became converts and now were both total hopheads. I suspect that having Sierra Nevada as one of their taps probably helped. Indeed, it was their only American tap. Although they had fair access to German and Belgian beers, most US craft products had not yet reached them. It was really heartening to hear a couple of guys who were into a style of beer even though they actually could get very much of it.
After talking about their histories and tastes, I asked them about the Irish beer scene in general. Basically they described a small and closely knit community of beer lovers which included the brewers of the brewpubs, the staff from the beer bars and their growing number of regulars. After having done quite a bit of reading and even hearing a magazine piece on the subject of micro brewing as it is known here, I am struck by how similar Ireland seems to be now to what I understand the US was like 25-30 years ago. They have an uphill climb since the juggernaut of Guinness has been joined by an increasing presence of Bud and Coors Light in many of the urban pubs. However, I am convinced that the craft scene can still succeed. The proof is right there in Paddy and Sebastian. It is also there in the fact that Against the Grain is a commercial success despite the fact that it occupies what one Dublin reviewer called the, “corner of death” since a large number of bars had come and gone in rapid succession at the same locale.
I am sure that the next time I come back to Ireland I will find a lot more craft beer. I look forward to seeing what kinds of styles and innovations this first wave of brewing rebels will come up with in the years to come because although having a great pint of Guinness will always be one of the defining experiences of Ireland for me, it will be nice to have so other good choices being served on the taps beside it.