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I'll drink to peace in our time, with a glass of Irish ale

Caffrey's proves astonishingly seductive and a great success for Bass

As a gesture to peace in Northern Ireland, I celebrated St Patrick's Day last night with a Belfast brew. I chose the one that owes its existence to the brewer, Clotworthy Dobbin.

He, as you are no doubt aware, established a brewery in Hercules Street (now Regal Avenue), Belfast, in the 1820s. Dobbin later married off his daughter to one of his employees, Thomas Caffrey, who built the grander brick brewery that still operates beyond Falls Road, in west Belfast, in the shadow of the Black Mountain. This brewery has for decades now been owned by Bass, who this time last year decided to revive the Caffrey name.

While the Irish on both sides of the border are known for their devotion to stout, they do also occasionally drink ales, though these are of a redder, smoother, sweeter, maltier style than their counterparts in Britain, especially English bitter.

Caffrey's, until now available only on draught, is such an Irish ale. It is almost as soothing as a stout (but not quite), yet has the fruitiness of an ale, a translucent, orangey colour, and an alcohol content of 4.8 per cent. Its fruitiness derives from the yeast, a strain isolated in the Fifties by an Irishman, the renowned brewing scientist Brian Gilliland.

This trademarked "Creamflow" system produces a pint that takes three minutes to settle - adding a touch of ritual but driving bartenders to distraction.

Some of the creamy nuttiness derives from malts that have been crystailised in the kilning, but this character is helped along by a chilled draught system that employs nitrogen in addition to the usual carbon dioxide. This trademarked "Creamflow" system produces a pint that takes three minutes to settle - adding a touch of ritual but driving bartenders to distraction.

At cool temperatures, nitrogen makes for the small bubbles that enhance the texture of draught stout. This gas is also used in the "widget" capsule that infuses "draught beer in a can". Yesterday, Caffrey's became available in this form, too.

Wishing for peace on St Paddy's, I allowed myself to be soothed by the nitrogen, and accepted that the Irish have no tradition of cask-conditioning to match that of Britain. Goodwill aside, I cannot help but feel that it is a form of fakery to smoothen beer with nitrogen. I also worry that such cool, easy-to-drink beers may usurp the more challenging, but satisfying, cask-conditioned ales of Britain. A more optimistic scenario would have the drinker of bland lagers being sweet-talked by Caifrey's into trying a "smooth" ale, then graduating to something more complex.

Either way, Caffrey's is proving astonishingly seductive. It represents the greatest success Bass, the United Kingdom's biggest brewer, has ever enjoyed with a new product. "We launched it quietly as a premium ale, with no advertising," a spokesman told me, "and our sales predictions were peanuts compared to what we have achieved."

More than 150,000 barrels were sold in the first year, and current sales make 200,000 seem likely in the second. Those figures, for one beer, match the total sales of a typical regional brewer. Caffrey's is at the moment sold only in Britain and Northern Ireland, but is available in 7,500 pubs. At Black Mountain, they are already building a new brewhouse.

Across the border, fanciers of the characteristically sweet, reddish style of Irish ale can enjoy the slightly breadier-tasting Phoenix and Maccardle's brews, both made in Dundalk, or the more buttery Smithwick's and Cherry's, from Kilkenny and Waterford. All three of those breweries are owned by the Guinness company.

Cherry's has recently been sighted in Britain as a "draught beer in a can". A Smithwick's product is meanwhile being marketed as a nitrogen-pumped draught, under the name Kilkenny Irish Beer.

To my palate, this is the most "Irish-tasting" among these ales, though I have also been charmed by an unusual feature of the brewery.

To my palate, this is the most "Irish-tasting" among these ales, though I have also been charmed by an unusual feature of the brewery. Standing in handsome dignity in the middle of the brewery yard are the ruins of the 13th-century abbey church of St Francis.

No doubt the Franciscan monks brewed, and probably made ale, centuries before Smithwick's was founded in the 1700s. Ale was made in Ireland long before stout became the national drink.

Though Irish ales are now becoming more popular in Britain, they are unlikely to usurp stouts. My own favourite version of Guinness Stout is the bottle-matured interpretation sold in Ireland and scandalously withdrawn from Britain a year or two ago. Guinness last year made small amends by adding to its range in Britain the pasteurised but very strong (7.5 per cent), "export" Foreign Extra Stout. It is not so much the strength as its long, complex, intensely dry flavour that makes this such a fine beer.

What responses from the Ireland's two other stout brewers, Beamish and Murphy, both of Cork? Beamish (owned by Foster's of Australia) has concentrated on its "Irishness", pointing out that, unlike its rivals, it brews none of its stout in Britain. Murphy's (owned by Heineken), has just responded with a conventional stout in the first "widget" bottle. The press release, an Irish stew of cliches, could not resist referring to "Stout Wars".

Surely not in these times of peace in Ireland?

Published Online: MAR 13, 2000
Published in Print: MAR 18, 1995
In: The Independent

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