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Pints of chocolate

Dublin - stout in hand - makes a perfect spot for a romantic weekend

As St Valentine is making clear this year, there is nothing quite like a romantic weekend. Nor, in my experience, is there a better way to spend it than drinking in Dublin, preferably with my green-eyed, red-haired, love.

There is no reason why she should: stout is no more fattening than bitter or lager, and none has half the calories of white wine. So why do I broaden with every pint? Must be my metabolism.

Pressed to name her favourite drink, she hesitates briefly before a cup of Assam tea, contemplates a pint of London bitter, but quickly lights upon a sleeve of Dublin stout. Luckily for her, she can weekend on this love potion without adding a millimetre to her very slender waistline. There is no reason why she should: stout is no more fattening than bitter or lager, and none has half the calories of white wine. So why do I broaden with every pint? Must be my metabolism.

I have never loved a woman who thought her gender fitted her only for white wine. Nor one whose idea of a beer was a half of a lager that she imagined would make her slim. Happily, there are more women of taste than is widely supposed.

I have noticed that the black brew has in recent years become much more popular among what used to be known as the fairer sex. Black is, I suppose, the most fashionable of colours.

Observers who believe that men and women have different taste-buds argue that the chocolatey flavours in stout please a female sweet tooth. I do not accept the initial premise, but agree that the three famous Irish stouts have all diminished in bitterness in recent years. In pursuit of the younger drinker, Guinness has become more chocolatey, less sappy and woody, than it once was. Murphy's is less toasty. Beamish, once the most chocolatey, seems by comparison now to be less obviously so.

The chocolatey, or sometimes espresso-like, character of stout derives from the use of grains that are more highly roasted than in other styles of beer. In some cases the grains have been roasted to produce what is known to brewers as "chocolate malt." The term is used because barley malted in this way has a taste that mimics Bourneville's best.

That roastiness is what defines a stout, as against other nuttier, sweeter or even tarter dark styles. In the traditionally dry stouts of Ireland, the balancing bitterness comes from a dosage of hops that is heftier than in most other styles. A warning to Messrs Guinness, Murphy and Beamish: take too much of that bitterness away and the beer will cease to be more-ish. It is the dryness on the tongue that invites another creamy kiss.

He was at the time using the flow of beer to describe a shamrock in the head of my pint. For St Valentine's, I'll have an arrow piercing a heart, please.

The creaminess of stout is another of its attributes. The few stouts pulled by hand gain much of their creaminess simply from the grains and procedures used in their brewing. There is an especially lively creaminess in stouts where the yeast is still at work. The far more common creaminess is less romantically owed to the nitrogen used in its serving. Nitrogen makes for smaller bubbles, and less gassy-seeming beer, than the carbon-dioxide used to pump most lagers. A good bartender will pause to let the bubbles settle for a while, only gradually "building" the pint. "If you're after having a quick beer, you are in the wrong place," one such artist unnecessarily explained to me. He was at the time using the flow of beer to describe a shamrock in the head of my pint. For St Valentine's, I'll have an arrow piercing a heart, please.

The skill of Irish bar staff, who take a pride in their trade, is one reason why stout tastes so much better in Ireland. Another reason is its very popularity. A pub that serves a lot is turning over very fresh beer.

The best way to enjoy these sensuous qualities is, after lunch on Friday, to take a plane to Dublin and be there in time to drink a pint of Guinness while watching the city's movers-and-shakers crowd the Horseshoe Bar at the Shelbourne Hotel. In Dublin, the weekend begins at the Shelbourne. It also slows to a close there, with Guinness and aphrodisiac oysters in the hotel's other, more spacious, bar on Sunday lunchtime.

And in between? Dublin has more favourite pubs than any city I know. The gentlest of strolls from the Shelbourne might take in a pint of Guinness among the theatrical memories at Neary's, off Grafton Street. From there, it is a saunter to a literary litre or so at the Palace Bar, in Fleet Street. This pub was favoured by Flann O'Brien, who hymned praise to plain porter, stout's lighter brother ("A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man").

If you sweet-talk the bar staff at the Palace, they might open the snug for you and your love. Last time I was there, I had a pint of a new stout that revives the name of a long-gone Dublin brewery. The new D'Arcy's Stout, fragrantly smoky, medicinal, and maltily textured, is made by a young micro-brewery in Smithfield, once the distillery quarter of Dublin. Without the apostrophe, Darcy was also a character created by J.P. Donleavy, whom I have spotted in the odd Dublin bar. Donleavy once said that when he died, he wanted to decompose in a cask of porter, to be served in the pubs of Dublin.

Leave the Palace, head through Temple Bar to Parliament Street and you may find yourself in the Porter House, a newish establishment that brews its own. Its brews include a flavour-packed Red Ale that makes Caffrey's seem like Tizer; a fruity Plain Porter to inspire the next O'Brien; a peaty, salty, sweetish Oyster Stout that is claimed to contain a handful of the precious bivalves in each brew; and a firm, oily, bitter-tasting pint called Wrassler's that recalls the Guinness of my uncompromised teenage years. A stout called Wrassler's, brewed in Cork in the early 1900s, was said to be a favourite of the republican leader Michael Collins. I have yet to be at the Porter House in winter for a strong ale called The Tasty Drop, rendered in Irish Gaelic as An Brain Blásta. Does Dr Mowlam know about this, I wonder?

The Porter House will also offer products from other new small brewers in Ireland at a beer festival from March 13 to 17 to celebrate St Patrick's Day.

Pints of chocolate

  • The wonderful Black Chocolate Stout of New York's Brooklyn Brewery will be available in Britain by October, I am promised. This achieves an astonishingly chocolatey taste from malt alone. It is as big, cakey, spicy and fruity as a Sacher Torte.

  • New Yorkers can also get a lighter, but still very smooth and dry, Chocolate Stout imported from the British country brewery McMullen's, of Hertford. Regrettably, British drinkers are thought too conservative for this beautiful beverage just yet.

  • London brewer Young's is slightly more daring. Its Double Chocolate Stout can be found in Britain. This brave brew does contain chocolate. It is silky and textured, starting with a suggestion of milk chocolate but rounding out with a good balance of bitterness.

  • Liverpool brewer Cain's has created a paler, tawny, Chocolate Ale. This smooth, nutty, brew is lightly flavoured with dark chocolate. I also found a violet-like floweriness. The same brewery has the amber Cupid's Ale, soft but dryish, and very lightly flavoured with ginseng. Both are available only from ASDA.

    Published Online: SEPT 13, 1999
    Published in Print: FEB 14, 1998
    In: The Independent

    Brew Travel - Beer Review

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