Here, I reflect on my recent beer tour of Ireland and Northern Ireland, in which I tasted an estimated 60 different beers in 10 days, visiting pubs in small seaside towns like charming Dingle (pop. 1,900) and Westport (5,500) to mid-sized cities like Galway (80,000) and Cork (119,000) to the countries’ largest cities, Dublin (530,000) and Belfast (333,000).
Low ABV: Of the beers I tasted, all but three were below 5.5 percent ABV as are the vast majority of any beer I encountered, with most in the 4.5 region. The three above 5.5 were from the same brewery, Mescan, based in Westport, which I was told was started by a Belgian. Their Westport Extra, a tripel with a scandalous 9 percent ABV was dangerously drinkable.
Where’s the Harp?: There are three beers I associate with Ireland: Guinness, Smithwick’s and Harp. True to its reputation, Guinness was in every pub and confirmed as the most popular beer by every bartender I asked. Smithwick’s Ale, at times accompanied by its newer mates, a blonde and a pale ale, was at nearly every pub. But Harp? I saw Harp on draft at exactly one pub, in Derry, Northern Ireland. In Ennis, down in the Republic, I asked our bartender Kaegan why the conspicuous absence. Here was our exchange – joined in on by a pub regular undoubtedly named Conor:
Me: Where’s all the Harp?
Kaegan: No one drinks Harp. Maybe up north. They say it makes people crazy.
Me: Where’s it from?
Kaegan: Don’t be crazy. (Looks it up on phone.) Up north. Makes sense. They’re a bunch of lunatics up there.
Fledgling craft brew: Through a number of conversations with bartenders, it seems as if the craft brew scene in Ireland is at least a decade behind us. The most popular beers, according to a handful a bartenders were, in order: Guinness, Heineken, Guinness Hop House 13 (a mildly hoppy lager), Carlsberg (a ho-hum macro German pilsner brewed in Ireland with Danish origins), Coors Light (at every single pub on draft, “probably because it’s cheap,” according to one bartender. The only other American beer on draft was Budweiser, save for one craft brew-heavy Belfast pub with Sam Adams) and Bulmer’s cider. If we got lucky, there might be one craft brew on tap, though cities five times the size of Durango would usually have just one craft brewery. When told that Durango, a town of 16,000, had six breweries, people were rightly amazed.
Iffy on hops: The hop craze is slowly infiltrating Ireland, especially its growing craft brew scene. Once, at two different neighborhood pubs in Dublin, we saw two young women walking around with trays of small free samples of something called Foxes Rock IPA. At the pub with older clientele, their trays remained full; they couldn’t even give it away. At the trendier, more youthful pub, the samples went faster, though it may have just been the extra gulp of an alcoholic beverage. The bartender there did say, “IPAs are a generational thing.”
Curious customs: If drinking at any Irish bar, don’t try to start a tab unless you want the bartender to look at you as though you’d asked him to arm wrestle a falcon. It’s pay as you go all the way in Ireland. And you can pay with a card anywhere, but the line to leave a tip will be oddly absent from your receipt, so always have some coins on you (though tipping wasn’t so much expected from bartenders, servers or Uber drivers. One waitress repeatedly and adamantly refused our €10 gratuity on a €50 dinner tab, citing how outrageously high it was. We made sure she got it.)
Durango in Dublin: Durango made its way all the way to Ireland! At the Porterhouse Brewing Co. in downtown Dublin, one wall seemed devoted to American craft brewery stickers. Wouldn’t you know, down there at the bottom were the black and white checkers of Ska.