Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In the Land of Real Ale

Well, not quite - but my extended trip has taken me into Northern Ireland, and being part of the UK there's a bit more of a presence of real ale (i.e. on cask) and even, thankfully, craft beer (from smaller, more independent brewers).

I've become a big fan of Marks and Spencer and Tesco since trying to keep costs down on my trip.  Good grocery prices, and lots of food with - wonder of wonders - no added flavourings or preservatives.  But I digress.  Look at what else you can pick up at Tesco!

Whitewater is a new-ish Northern Ireland brewey, and you can often find their beers on tap and in stores.  The Belfast Black was a nice little stout, and the Belfast Ale on cask was a very tasty, fruity bitter.  The McEwans was wonderful - a good Scotch Ale is my favourite solo dessert beer.  And I was fortunate enough to have a wedge of mild stilton handy to have with the Old Peculier old ale, which was pure heaven.

CAMRA's effects are felt all over the UK, including Northern Ireland, and most pubs have at least one cask going at all times.  (Even the cheapo Wetherspoons chain has casks - though when I commented on how nice it was to get a cask beer there, to the woman pouring it for me, she looked confused and said, "It's just a different type of tap handle" - as she pulled the manual cask pump repeatedly and served me beer out of a gooseneck, before moving on to serve Heinekens to other people via a regular tap.  Clearly knowledge of what you're serving is not a prerequisite for working behind the bar there!)

The results of cask beer are mixed, however, and while I respect the tradition, I'm not so certain it's the ultimate in beer delivery.  Many times you hit a cask beer that just isn't that good; the people serving it aren't experts, and frankly I don't know if the breweries do/can do enough to ensure the cask product is tasty by the time it's served.  I find you have to go through a lot of bad-to-mediocre-to-average beer in casks before hitting one that's extra-special.  And I just don't want to drink that much so-so beer.  Fortunately, most places allow you to sample before purchasing a full glass.

Let's face it, casks are old technology.  Modern kegging systems allow you to provide a more predictable, stable product.

Case in point, we got a pint of Hilden Ale (craft brewer near Belfast) and a pint of College Green's Molly's Chocolate Stout (another Hilden brand), both on cask, at The John Hewitt in Belfast.  The Hilden Ale was, well, terrible.  Watery, yeast-stressed, and just not enjoyable - a waste of money.  In contrast, the Molly's stout was sublime - really a wonderful cask-based chocolate stout.  Same brewer, same pub, wildly different results.  Fortunately, craft brewers in BC don't seem to leave quite as much to chance with casks, and while many might not be as authentically produced as a UK cask beer (i.e. already-finished beers with a few extra ingredients and/or yeast added), the results are generally better.

At The John Hewitt, a fellow patron was nice enough to give me her CAMRA Northern Ireland newsletter pamphlet.  It was a nice little booklet, with a couple of articles and some ads.  But I find CAMRA Vancouver's weekly email newsletter is more informative and timely.  And it turns out that CAMRA Northern Ireland only has about 300 members - half as many was CAMRA Vancouver (which is presently around 600+, if I recall correctly).  CAMRA Vancouver might not be as accepted as CAMRA England yet, but they have surpassed CAMRA Northern Ireland in some respects.

We grabbed a meal (upstairs) and a couple of cask beers (downstairs) at The Crown in Belfast.  It's a beautifully decorated Victorian pub, a heritage building with mosaics, doored booths and gaslight - really worth a visit just for the ambience.

Mrs. Hoplog enjoys a cask Whitewater Belfast Ale in our booth

Stained glass, and Lion & Griffin booth guardians

Giving the Crown Ale a shot

Now that's a bar

Back in the day you could ring the bell for booth service, and you could strike you matches on the roughened sign

Real gaslight is still used


  1. My experience with casks in Scotland and southern England was similar. Many very flawed beers were consumed, while the handful of specialty craft beer bars I went to that leaned more toward kegs were spectacular.

    It almost feels like a culture where the quality of the beer is secondary, as long as it was made the right way. Almost.

  2. Gorgeous bar! I think many western saloons aspired to be like that bar...