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Brewery with its own abbey - it must be Ireland

I will always blackly cherish the memory of a Dublin bar that displayed a handpump announcing the ale made by Dempsey's, a short-lived micro-brewery there.

"I'll have a pint of that, please," I beamed expectantly. "Ah, we don't actually have that any more," confided the barman. "People didn't like it." Then, sensing that further explanation was required, he dealt the coup de grace: "No, they wouldn't drink the stuff - it was real ale, you see." I began my travels in Ireland in the 1960s at which point I tasted the odd ale that is no longer made. Since then, I have sampled a selection of products made at various times in the Republic's three specialist ale breweries and at least two versions of George Killian Lett's "Red," as created under licence in France and Colorado.

Why Irish ales tend towards a reddish colour, I am not sure. Malting techniques do vary from one country to another, and that may have had something to do with it in the past.

The Lett's brewery had a Ruby Ale before it closed in the 1950's, so I cannot wholly accept the popular story that the Irish brewers were inspired by the success in the 1960s of Younger's Tartan.

All of the specialist ale brewers in the Republic are now owned by Guinness, and all use roasted barley as an ingredient, which will make for some similarity of colour.

Of the Irish ales that I have tasted over the years, most have tended toward a buttery, malty sweetness, rather than a hoppy dryness. If we accept that hops were first used in beer in Bohemia or Bavaria, and came via Northern France and Flanders to Britain, it is reasonable to assume that their use arrived rather late in Ireland.

The country seems never to have had a serious hop-growing industry. In recent years, some excellent Fuggles were grown in Kilkenny, but that experiment has now been abandoned. Guiness is, of course, a very hoppy beer, but it imports the magic cone.

The three specialist ale breweries are Cherry's (at Waterford), Smithwick's (not far away at Kilkenny) and Macardle's (at Dundalk, on the border).

I suppose the Normans must have landed at Waterford and found their way up the river Nore to the high and defensible point where they built St Canices Cathedral, at what is now Kilkenny.

Down below, the Nore meets a smaller river called the Breaghagh (Irish for "The Liar", because it looks calm and then suddenly floods). There, Franciscan monks built an abbey, which probably had its own brewery.

The 13th century abbey church still stands, with tower but without roof. It is an extremely impressive ruin.

The abbey ruins, with kegs stacked outside their seven-lance window, are now in the middle of the brewery yard.

Next door, in 1710, John Smithwick founded a brewery to make ale for what had become a prosperous town. There was briefly an Irish Parliament in Kilkenny. The town is famous for marble, and it is the trading centre for a fertile agricultural region The abbey ruins, with kegs stacked outside their seven-lance window, are now in the middle of the brewery yard. Smithwick's has grown around them.

The brewer's house and a former maltings, both from the 1800s, still stand. The line of the abbey seems unconsciously to be mimicked by a modern malt bar.

The 1960s brewhouse building has more recent stainless steel kettles in traditional shapes, and its interior has a smart, red trim. In the early 1970s, cylindro-conical fermenters were introduced.

Mound the same time, the oratory of the abbey church was restored and the brewery's statue of Our Lady installed there. With the use of some slates salvaged from the church, a sample room for quality control was built alongside in 1980.

Across the yard, the former cask-conditioning cellars have been decorated with old advertising material and spruced up as a guest bar.

There has been no lack of investment at Smithwick's, and its ales are heavily advertised in Ireland, despite the gradual erosion of this segment of the market.

In the 1950s an interest was acquired by Guinness, who took over the company in the 1960s and sole control in the late 1980s.

The basic Smithwick's Draught has a creamy head, a palate that is very soft at first but develops in sweetness, and a hint of treacle toffee dryness in the finish. It seems bigger than might be expected from a gravity of 1036.

It is brewed from Pale Ale malt, roasted barley and 20 per cent corn syrup, with English bittering hops, plus Fuggles and Goldings for aroma.

Smithwick's had used the same yeast for many years, and the beer has a week's cold maturation. Draught Smithwick's is also made by the Cherry's brewery, in Waterford.

The bottled version of Smithwick's, known as Number 1, is a point higher in gravity, and has 10 per cent corn syrup.

A version called Smithwick's Export in the Canadian market and Kilkenny Irish Beer in some European countries has a gravity of 1048 and is all malt, with fuller colour and higher bitterness. Italy has a 1052 version and one at 1059 called Kilkenny Strong.

Smithwick's also has a 1062 Barley Wine. This is very distinctive, with an earthy hoppiness, a wineyness, lots of fruit and toffee flavours.

I was concerned for the survival of this product, but it seems to he doing well as a minor speciality.

Kilkenny is a delightful town, in which I would have liked to linger for a day or two. Perhaps I will on another occasion.

"All Irish towns are the same," said the man in the pub. "A cathedral for the Catholics, another for the Proddies - and 13 bars." Perhaps, but how many have a brewery, especially one with a ruined abbey in its yard?

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: FEB 1, 1993
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Beer Review

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