Sunday, 6 January 2013

Irish Dark Beers & Stout Stew

On a recent visit to Ireland, suitcase space was limited for picking up some beer to bring home from the burgeoning microbrewery scene there, and shopping time was scarce. So having to make a snap decision while in Probus Beers near Trinity College, I decided to just pick up a couple of Irish dark beers, that I could bring back and have in a kind of “compare and contrast “ session over one evening with other similar beers I could source in England.

To go with the beers I wanted to try cooking some beef-in-stout stew. I haven't made this before (using sausage for stew is the preferred recipe going back generations in our family for some reason, probably war years austerity!), but I do love a good plate of warming stew; it's something you can find in many cafes, bars and coffee shops in Northern Ireland, but not often in England (although apparently @newinnharborne do a winter stew on their current menu). So I dug out a likely recipe, bought in some good quality beef from Harborne Village Butchers, and found an afternoon with plenty of time to get the stew slow cooking in the oven and the beers lined up to drink.

The first up was Knockmealdown porter from @8degreesbrewing, a micro that started in 2011 – I hadn't had much by this brewery before so was interested to try their dark beer. At first I realised I'd left it a little too long in the fridge and needed to let it warm up for a bit once poured, but once that had happened more aroma was released – and I was surprised to find a slightly sour note in this – reminded me a bit of Orval, mixed in with some coffee-ish scents. The lactiness was evident also in the taste, and I'm not sure was meant to be there (later batches of this beer have been described as having a sweetish finish); it wasn't unpleasant, but left me feeling unsure of how this beer should “actually” taste.

Next I poured the Guinness Export – this had more tartness & bitterness than I was expecting, as I thought it may be more smooth and roasty. I had used this in the stew as it was the right size bottle for the recipe, readily available in England, and I didn't want to use one of the beers I'd brought back from Dublin in the cooking, otherwise I wouldn't get the chance to properly taste them! I was expecting to like this beer a little more than I did but it was pleasant enough without being particularly exciting.

While drinking this, I served up the stew that was finally ready after several hours cooking – thankfully the beef was by now really tender and tasty and the liquid absorbed. The meat flavours had a slightly more bitter note than I'd expected, so I may choose to use a very slightly sweeter stout when I make this dish again. I wished I had some Irish wheaten bread to go with it, but hadn't had time to hunt some down in the shops of Birmingham so crusty bread and some ground black pepper would have to do. After some research, I had settled on this recipe and was pleased with the results.

Once we'd had the stew, we moved on to the O'Hara's Irish Stout (brewed by Carlow) – again procured from Probus – and this delivered much more of what I was expecting and hoping for. Sweet roasts on the nose, like a rich filter coffee with a touch of cream and sugar. That lovely coffee bean note was carried over into the flavour, with a silky mouthfeel, but wasn't overpowering – making this more of a 'pintable' stout for enjoyable everyday drinking than something you'd sip with reverence – but I liked it very much for that aspect and would hope to encounter this on draught somewhere next time I'm in Dublin.

I then wanted to try the Irish Stout that Carlow Brewing Co produce for Marks and Spencer. Initially I thought this may be the same beer as the O'Hara's Irish Stout, but Carlow informed me they are actually different beers, and this was obvious once I'd poured it. It was much lighter in the mouth and on flavour than the previous beer, with a slight effervescence. The pronounced roastiness wasn't there, but the hint of smooth sweetness made this easy drinking, although not that memorable. Not a bad beer, but not a particularly distinctive one either.

Last of the night was the bottle-conditioned Porterhouse Celebration Stout – this is a beer they produced as a one-off originally, to celebrate their 10th Anniversary, but I now believe is produced every year as they realised it was quite popular. Although there was no year of production on this bottle, and it's 'best before' date was November 2012, I suspect it was fairly recently made and would have benefited perhaps from keeping for a while. But it can be difficult to take the gamble of ageing on a beer you don't know that well, so better to drink it and then you can judge if you'd be better storing it, the next time you get hold of a bottle. While this didn't have the full-on richness I'd experienced the first time I'd tasted this beer a few years ago, it certainly had a velvety texture on the palate, bitter roasts and sweet, woody liquorice notes. A worthy nightcap, though I couldn't help wondering what other delights this beer would have yielded up, given a bit of time resting in the beer cupboard first.

An enjoyable evening trying a few new beers with a theme and learning to cook a new dish – my overall vote for the evening would go to the Carlow O'Hara's stout, and I do hope to find bottled and draught versions of this side by side next time I'm across the sea, for more of a comparison and dark beer session!

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