I’ll be frank: one of the good reasons for becoming a beer blogger is the opportunity it gives to go places, meet people, do things that you wouldn’t otherwise get to do. (Free beer too? Well, there is some of that, true, but I turn a fair bit of free beer down, because I don’t do reviews, much.) The chance to get into places the public doesn’t get to see is one big reason why I decided to go to the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference in Dublin: I suspected there would be a chance to see extremely interesting things normally hidden from public eyes, and as we shall see, I was absolutely right.
Fortunately for me, I have relatives in Dublin, so I was able to stay in the city for free: and I signed up early enough to grab one of the “bursaries” Molson Coors was offering, which effectively refunded the €95 conference fee, so mostly all it cost me was my air fare from Heathrow. When I signed up to come to the conference, I hadn’t been to Dublin since my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday in 2006, and as I said in my previous blog entry, in the past eight years – in the past TWO years – the Irish craft beer scene has exploded, so I was also keen to see how the beer offer had changed in Dublin’s bars, and what these new breweries were like.
As it happened, I had to go on a mother-in-law-related trip to the city in May, and took a day off to visit places recommended by the ever-excellent Beer Nut, Ireland’s premier beer blogger. Thus the Thursday night pub crawl organised for EBBC attendees and led by Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale was less of a revelation to me than it probably was to some of the other 30 or so people on the tour, since, unsurprisingly, the BN had marked my card with several of the places Reuben took us to.
They were certainly as mixed a selection as you’ll find in any good city, from the basic – Brew Dock, part of the Galway Bay Brewery’s own chain of pubs, but selling much more than just GBB beers – to the more typically Dublin elaborate-mirrors-and-dark wood of Farrington’s/The Norseman (it keeps changing its name back and forth) in Temple Bar via another very Dublin concept, the three or four-storey pub, of which JW Sweetman (named for an old Dublin brewery) and the Porterhouse are good examples, to the “stripped pine and books on the wall” Black Sheep, another Galway Bay Brewery pub, rather more like a “normal” English-style craft beer bar than most craft beer bars in Dublin, to the Bull and Castle, a substantially sized “craft beer steakhouse”. Just as a point of comparison, the only two places you would have found craft beer in back when I was last in Dublin out of that list would have been Sweetman’s, previously a homebrew pub called Messers Maguires, and the Porterhouse (which still, I was delighted to see, has the bottle of my wedding ale I presented them in 1997 on display in one of the bars).
The actual venue for the conference was another pretty much unique bar/restaurant complex, The Church, which is, yup, a converted church: not just any old converted church, but the church where Arthur Guinness married his wife Olivia in 1761, two years after buying the brewery in St James’s Gate that later became rather well-known. It was an excellent choice by the organisers, since it provided space for receptions/parties/beer tastings in the cellars and a large room for the different conference sessions.
Hands up, I probably wasn’t as interested or attentive in the different sessions as I should have been, except for the first, by Declan Moore, “consulting archaeologist”, on the early centuries of Irish ale: fascinating stuff, and it was great to meet him for the first time. Indeed, the social side of the conference was as important as any other: it was also good to meet face-to-face, among quite a few others, Steve Lamond of Beers I’ve Known, who was extremely generous with beers he’d brought along, and to find new friends too: I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Rossa O’Neill, trombonist and home-brewer, and a fine chap – you can read his take on the conference here.
And what about the stuff civilians don’t (normally) get to do? Well, there were the two opportunities to try unfiltered and unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell tapped straight from the wooden cask, with PU’s master brewer Vaclav Berka doing the tapping: a vastly superior brew to the standard version. And the chances to chat to loads of new Irish brewers. But the event I was most hoping for was the trip to the Guinness brewery at St James’s Gate. This is simply not something that happens any more: while once Guinness would let visitors look around the site, the public today is allowed only into the Guinness Storehouse, at €18 a head, which is, I’ll grant, a praiseworthy presentation of the story of one of the world’s great drink brands, but I’ve got all the books – I know all that stuff.
I don’t know who among the organisers of the EBBC talked to whom at Guinness, but they did a wonderful job of persuasion. Guinness, led by its hugely knowledgable master brewer Fergal Murray (it amused me to be able to startle him by saying: “Hello – you won’t remember, but I interviewed you in an Irish pub in Hong Kong a couple of years back”), welcomed us in, fed and watered us magnificently (see left for just part of it), walked us through the 19th century tunnel that connects one side of the brewery to the south of St James’s Gate to the side nearest the Liffey (which few if any civilians ever get to do) and, mirabile dictu, let us have a look around their lovely brand new £128m brewhouse, Brewhouse Number 4, which has been built on what was formerly a keg storage yard. It’s so new it isn’t officially open yet, and when it is running properly it will be able to produce all the beer Guinness previously made at four different breweries around Ireland, including all the “Guinness essence” that is exported across gloebe for local breweries to make their own Guinness Foreign Extra Stout with.
If you like big and shiny – and I’m surprisingly impressed with that sort of stuff – then the new Guinness brewhouse is magnificent. The main room is a huge space filled with vast stainless steel vessels, which, like icebergs, have far more of themselves unseen below the surface/floor. The biggest of the mash tuns are 21 feet across, meaning you could fit most microbreweries into one new Guinness mash tun two or three times over, and they hold 23 tonnes of grain each. They are, unsurprisingly, the biggest of their kind in Europe. It’s an amazing sight.
Unfortunately, Guinness asked us all not to take any photographs of the new brewhouse interior. It would be entirely wrong of me, after their incredible generosity and friendliness, to spit on their hospitality and disobey their wishes, and I am sure it would also deeply disappoint and anger the organisers of the EBBC as well, who all did such a great job, and who would undoubtedly bar me from any future beer blogging conferences, were I to disobey that request. So I have to ask you not to look at the two photographs below, and if you do accidently view them, please pluck your eyeballs out immediately.