Some people are content to drink the beer, maybe even write about it, but some people need to know more. I love seeing where something comes from, and if there’s a distillery, brewery or winery, or any other craft workshop nearby I’ll try to visit. Miscreant Brewers Peter and Kev, familiar to you all from “The Epic Barrel Project” and I decided to make it an ambition to visit all of Ireland’s microbreweries to see what makes them tick. Peter and I visited Galway Hooker in Roscommon back around the same time we picked up the barrel. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos, but Aidan the Hooker Brewer (Official Title) was mid-brew and we had a great time poking around, while Peter pumped him mercilessly for technical details. It was a really fun visit.
Anyway last weekend Kev and I got around to the second trip, and decided to scoot up the new road (much better than the old road) to the Clanconnel Brewery, which is near to the village of Waringstown, Co. Down. Google maps appears to think it’s in Armagh. Probably best not to get into these disputes however. Clanconnel is the pre-plantation name of the area that became Waringstown, and the label features a stylised Heron, a local symbol. The two beers they produce so far continue the emphasis on local history, “Weaver’s Gold” recognises the once thriving flemish-influenced linen industry, while “McGrath’s Red” immortalises Master McGrath, a famous local Greyhound. More about these beers later.
Mark Pearson, another ICB character is the founder of Clanconnel and he met us at the brewery. He had been hoping to brew, but a piece of equipment (a chiller I think) he had been waiting for from England was tardy, so he couldn’t brew. Nonetheless he very kindly showed us around. I was actually quite impressed with the setup, I guess I was expecting a smaller setup, but Clanconnel is quite professional looking, and well laid out. It’s inside a big industrial unit, with the brewing tanks at one end, and smaller room-units built from timber in the middle. There are separate areas for cold conditioning and bottling, there’s a lab and a little kitchen. The vessels are the standard wooden clad type that you typically find in many British micros. I think Mark said it came from a Cornish brewery. The primary fermenters are cooled via glycol from several cooling units, which also cool the tanks in the conditioning room. Those tanks were not with the original brewery. From the cool tanks there is a bright (filtered) beer tank, which then feeds in next door to the bottling setup, which consists of a magical machine that takes the beer from the Bright tank and carbonates it, and fills two bottles at a go. It is doctored to handle kegs also if necessary. Bottling is a manual affair, and Mark drafts in help for this. Bottles are washed and sanitised, filled on the magical machine, capped, and labeled with a further machine. The labels are quite smart looking, both following the same pattern but different colouring. The blonde ale is printed on silver, the red ale on gold.
Weaver’s Gold was the first beer produced, and McGrath’s red was introduced recently, and is doing very well apparently. Clanconnel hasn’t quite made it south of the border, but plans to get it to us thirsty southerners are well underway I was assured. This means neither Kev nor I had tasted it, all we knew was that Mark was on the ICB forum from time to time, and I had read the information available on the website. the quality of both beers exceeded my expectation. Mark had kindly put a couple of tasters in the fridge before our arrival.
Weavers Gold is very clear, and quite fizzy, I think I remember Mark telling us it was carbonated to maybe 2.6 volumes of CO2. It is very pale. The hopping is low, but when Mark told me the IBU I was surprised, because it seems more bitter than the figure he told me. The body of the beer has the same grainy malty thing coming through that I so like in Galway Hooker. Overall it’s one of the nicest Irish blonde ales I’ve tried. I always worry that the reason brewers go for this style is because they (probably justifiedly) have no faith in consumers to try anything more interesting, but in this case Clanconnel manages to have a light refreshing beer that still has both a nice malty body, and clear if understated hopping.
McGrath’s Irish Red is the new addition. If I had reservations about blonde ales, I really had reservations about Irish Reds, because generally I feel it’s a bit of a non-style, it just happens to be the only style apart from dry stout that is properly ‘Irish’. However more often than not it just seems to be a Bitter that isn’t bitter enough. But I stuck my nose into McGrath’s Red, and I was greeted with caramel, chocolate, lovely crystal malts. I even thought I got a small hint of coffee. A much more complex nose than I was led to expect from other reds. Now don’t get me wrong, one of my favourite pints is going to the Gingerman and drinking Writer’s Red (Rebel Red from the Franciscan Well in Cork, re-badged), but it’s more because I like the idea of sharing a pitcher with friends, and it’s the cheapest pint in town, and an easy drinker. On the other hand, the Irish Red Ale that Carlow Brewing Company do especially for Aldi is in my opinion one of the best Irish craft beers there is, and much better than O’Hara’s Red. Back to Clanconnel though! It’s much more gently carbonated than Weaver’s Gold, more to my taste. The taste follows the nose expectations, with the signature ‘Irish Red’ flavours of caramel and toffee providing the bulk of it. I didn’t detect any real hop presence other than bittering. I think that McGrath’s is a quality beer up there with the best of the Irish Reds. Beers like Smithwicks, Caffrey’s, McArdles and others used to be far more popular than they are now, but in my opinion they were very bland and dull beers. The Irish Red Ales offered by today’s Irish Microbreweries are proper examples of what this style can be, and with any luck they will reclaim the section of the market that Smithwicks et. al. have clearly lost, despite rebranding with a sexy glass. the Microbrewers deserve it, and they are restoring my faith in a style I had all but abandoned.
Clanconnel have plans for a stout soon, and if the quality is as high as these two it should be a tasty proposition indeed! Clanconnel struck me as a well thought out and well executed brewing proposition, and I have confidence that they can continue to impress into the future.