There is only one Norn Irish beer in "1001 beers to try before you die". That's probably not a shock to many people who have been to pubs and bars across the country. Yes, we have some great bars for a good night out enjoying the craic and talking rubbish. But, until recently, if you liked a beer that wasn't Bud, Carlsberg, Harp, or Tennents, i.e at best insipid pale lager, the choices were basically non-existent.
"Ah, but what about Guinness", I hear you say. Yes, its ubiquitously available, and yes given the right circumstances it can be a good pint. Those circumstances are (a) the bar serves lots of it, i.e. the bar is full and no-one is drinking anything else and (b) it's within sight of the brewery - Guinness travels really badly!
However, in the last few years things have really begun to change. Local brewers, such as Hilden, Whitewater, and Clanconnell deserve praise as they have been producing really decent beer for awhile - but they are now starting to gain traction and are becoming more widely available.
So here's a quick run down of my favourite local beers:
- Hoppelhammer. Style: IPA, ABV: 6%. I came across this beer at the CAMRA Belfast Beer Festival in 2012, when it was (quite rightly in my opinion) voted Beer of the Festival. A big beer with a an intensive hoppy bitterness, followed by citrus flavours and a nice alcohol warmth to finish. This is probably the best IPA I've had from a UK or Ireland producer, and I'm glad to see it appearing a more and more bars across the country. Go buy some!
- Clotworthy Dobbin. Style: Porter, ABV 5%. This is the local beer which features in "1001 beers to try before you die", and deservedly so. A great example of the style, with toffee and sweet fruit overtones. A nice beer to sit down and sip in front of a warm fire.
- Whitewater also produce the very tasty Belfast Ale, Belfast Lager, and Belfast Black slightly less adventurous - but they show what can be done with the style when you make beer the with passion and quality ingredients.
- Barney's Brew. Style: Spiced Wheat, ABV: 5%. Who'd have thought you could get a local wheat beer, spiced with cardamom, coriander, and black pepper. It sounds unusual (and it is!) but it shows what an innovative brewer can produce that you'd never see one of the megabrewers even try. Lovely on an Autumn night!
- Hilden Halt. Style: Irish Red Ale, ABV: 6.1%. A big malty, red ale with only mild hops. The alcohol content gives it a nice warmth.
- Hilden also produce Hilden Ale, Scullion's Ale, and Twisted Hop. All are worth trying out if you can find a bottle or two, and they also deserve credit for some of the best labels in the craft beer scene. Hilden also brew a nice session house ale for the Dirty Duck in Holywood - always worth a visit for the chowder and a tasty pint or 2.
- McGraths Irish Black. Style: Stout, ABV: 4.3%. I first came across this beer in the back bar in the Garrick in Belfast. A jet-black, thick (almost tar like but in a good way), stout with big peppery and smoky overtones. Much superior to Guinness but it might be seen as an acquired taste - have a couple of bottles, give it a chance to grow on you, and it could become a favourite.
- I know Clanconnel produce other beers but I've yet to give them a proper tasting. I'll be sure to update this post when I do.
So good local beer is available - along with some great craft beers and real ales from around the UK, Ireland, and the World - you just got to know where to find it.
Some credit has to go to Tesco and Sainsbury's who have now picked up beers from around the world and started making them available. Tesco (strangely availability changes from store to store - the Newtownbreda store seems to have the best selection) is good for world beers, where as Sainsbury's at Forestside is good for English ales.
However, and its a big however, neither can live with the selection, choice and advice you can get in the Vineyard on the Ormeau Road. If your buying beer in Belfast its the place to go. Have a chat with the friendly, knowledgeable staff; if your planning a beer tasting evening it's essential!
As a mentioned above, each year CAMRA host a beer festival in the Kings Hall. The 14th (see what you've missed so far!) festival is taking place on 21st to 23rd November 2013. Get yourself along for a great day's craic, live music, and plenty of good beers (though save me some of the black IPA if its there).
I covered this in my first post, but just to reiterate and add to, the following bars are well worth a visit and have a decent selection (and if you'r unlucky you'll see me there):
- The Garrick
- The Duke of York
- The John Hewitt
- Cuckoo (though its a bit Hipster...)
- The Errigle
- The Dirty Duck