Casked beer is a curious creature. It comes in gallon, firkin, kilderkin, barrel, hogshead, butt and ton. It is protected and revered in the UK by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and almost never produced, or at least retailed, in modern Ireland. It is served at close to room temperature, it doesn’t exhibit the same fabricated creaminess of texture of ‘traditional’ stouts (much of that ‘creaminess’ is actually due to forced nitrogenation post-fermentation). It takes special equipment to dispense, usually needs to be 'hand sold' to a customer and only a handful of pubs in the country choose to sell it at all. It doesn’t tick the marketing boxes that ‘Dragons’ Den’ seat warmers would invest in, it doesn’t conform.
So why on earth would a fledgling producer such as Dungarvan Brewing Company take a chance on brewing for cask when there is a dearth of a market for it? Most other Irish micro-breweries primarily keg their beers, as well as producing casks for the small market that exists, not Dungarvan Brewing Company. I can see Duncan Balintyne shaking his head in deep concern, and incredulity at the prospect of it. The answer, as it so often does, lies in the glass.
Blackrock Stout is almost opaque. Topped with a rich caramel head that rests gently against the glass, it has the smallest of bubbles that give it a silky texture, allowing all the dark coffee, molasses, and slightly burnt caramel flavours to wash through your mouth. The initial flavour is demandingly stouty: a proud, hoppy bitterness that stands up to be counted, but mellows out to allow the sweeter side of the stout to develop. It has the sort of sweetness tasted at the end of a well brewed espresso (but without the caffeine sucker punch!), a lip smacking, savouring sweetness that steps aside for a little spice to finish the experience with a flourish.
As the stout is pumped from cask to vessel it is aerated by the sparkler at the bottom of the tap, and delivers a delightful performance, a seesaw like effect: the ale gush-fills a portion of the glass, only for a little to be sucked back up when the tap handle is once again reset. It has a laconic cadence of its own that is simply soothing and speaks to the genre emphatically. It has its own pace, attitude and will not be rushed, nor should it. It is a luxury and a scourge for a barman, a few moments of forced stillness on a busy night.
There is a certain amount of faith on the part of the Dungarvan brauhaus in their ability to not only brew excellent, handcrafted products, but that the market is going to be there to sustain the brewing of same. There is even more faith that there is enough piqued interest out there for punters to travel to the few outlets that support cask beers, like us, the Bull and Castle, Against the Grain and the Porterhouse Temple Bar. They, like the rest of the Irish micro brewing community, don’t compete on comparison, nor on ubiquity, they have the ability to compete on points of differentiation and individuality, of quality and this is why they cask their stout. It is worth traveling for, it is worth waiting for, and we have all waited long enough.
Pictures with thanks to Dungarvan Brewing Company.
Blackrock Stout now available on cask in L. Mulligan. Grocer. at €5 a pint.