Welcome to Northern Ireland! Home to Belfast and beer Mecca: The Crown Bar:
In last week’s post, trains, buses, and ferries took us from Aberdeen to Skye Island and then south to Belfast in Northern Ireland…in three days.
Our Belfast ferry lands late at night. Internet had told us that we could walk to town. But internet lied. The port had moved miles out of town.
We get lost. Freeze. Fight. Then, stumbling out of bushes with our luggage, we find the first and last taxi of our seven month trip. Poor driver thought we were zombies.
Rested, sort of, we wake with three days in Belfast.
Our first day we manage to squeeze in a waterfront walk.
Since we had already visited the Titanic museum and graves in Halifax, we skip forking over 28 pounds per person to experience another Titanic experience museum.
This steel mess claims to be the birthplace of the Titanic. But walk a mile or so down the port and you will find a massive trench and a brick edifice: the dock and pump house that actually outfitted the ship and set it on its way. 5 pounds.
We tack on a tour of Northern Ireland’s Parliament.
Confused outside, inside serene arches and colors create a Wedgewood wedding cake of neo-classicism.
As we venture deeper, my wife ponders running this chunk of the UK in Ireland.
Supporting her revolution, our tour guide sneaks off with her. She returns bedecked in Parliamentarian robes worth 4,000 pounds.
High on indirect power pixie dust, we get local beer.
Our nights at the hostel we open four beers from Whitewater Brewery: Northern Ireland’s largest brewery…hmmm.
There is a minor amount of golden amber color, a thin white head, and rapid, small fizz.
Aromas waft strong, hopped grapefruit, honey, caramel, and oranges. Nice.
Tannins and acids are edgy, steely, and demand food, so pizza saves us. The alcohol sits at a low 3.7%, rendering the body light. Flavors taste simple with citrus, hops and bitter rind, with some length. The quality dips to acceptable (2 of 5). My apologies.
Horrid iPod photo aside, Belfast Ale is a rich red amber, with fine rapid bubbles, and thin white head.
Strong toffee, malt, raspberries, and some honey enrich the nose.
My palate tells me this feels dry, with average acid, noticeable fine leather tannins, medium alcohol 4.5, medium plus body.
Flavors of bitter orange compote on slightly burnt brown bread toast hold out, until it turns salty, with an asparagus edge to its finish. Medium length. Good quality (3 out of 5) but a bit edgy and tannic and missing a core to be better than that.
Come on Northern Ireland! Work it!
The Belfast Black is up against mass market, but truly Irish, Guinness. It looks dark enough with red core and cream colored lace.
The average intensity aromas mimic roast pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, french roast coffee: good. It feels dry, extra tart and refreshing, with some black burnt bitterness, average alcohol 4.2%, and a medium body. Mind you Guinness is no heavyweight either.
The flavors remind me, oddly, of sparkling grapefruit mineral water, very bright, framed in charcoal and toast, with a touch of light caramel at core. The length is a medium let down as the others. The Belfast Black tastes edgy and odd. Good (3 of 5) not great.
Lastly, Whitewater’s intriguingly titled: CLOTWORTHY DOBBIN
Clotworthy Dobbin sounds like some really annoying Hobbit (wait, there’s a difference?). But how does it fare?
This is a red amber beer with hardly any fizz and a fine, cream colored head.
The nose asserts itself with warm chocolate, fruitcake, malt. Louder and better!
Higher, fresh acidity leads the show, backed by medium tannins, alcohol (5%), and body.
Flavors aren’t loud either. Clotty here tastes like a blend of a creamy milk latté and mulled orange. Its lovely citrus kick counters the balancing creamy malt. Again, the main let down is the average length. This is good (3 of 5), just a bit dual, undercomplicated and not integrated. So Whitewater Brewery, Northern Ireland’s largest, can make decent beer, worthy of a night in a hostel.
At least their Clotworthy Dobbin is not a Hobbit.
Fat and happy, we walk past tidied hotels and the truly grand, Grand Opera House. Few signs of the Troubles have survived Belfast’s renovation.
Across the street stands the myth, the legend:
The Crown Liquor Saloon is a drink-geek’s right of passage. Italian craftsmen ornamented this Victorian Gin Palace in 1885. The National Trust poured over a million pounds to restore it. And it works.
The place bustles with business meetings, tourists, and drunk locals. The snugs brim with people, so we land at bar’s end. Hand-worked wood paneling, candied tiles, and stained-glass glitter with Belfast’s rise as an industrial port.
The Crown adheres to the Real Ale movement: many beers are local and from cask. No soda-machine CO2, fridge, or keg.
So I try Scullion’s Irish Ale from Hilden Brewing Company. Hilden is Northern Ireland’s oldest independent brewer, founded in that most auspicious autumn of 1981 (my long lost Irish twin?).
Scullion’s Irish Ale is clear copper, with thick cream colored head, and minimal bubbles.
This Ale breaths of warm baked bread, fruit preserves, and a fun bit of feral funk.
The palate’s parts are balanced and moderate. Flavors are more fullsome: roast nuts, orange creamsicle, jam lightly spread on soft warm bread. The medium length finish tastes of vanilla crème brûlée.
Hilden makes a wondrously mellow, fruity, bready ale. This is very good (4 of 5). The cask time and warmer temperature paint on vanilla, while modulating fizz, acid, and bitterness. That, and the Crown’s Victorian charm makes everything fantastic.
Belfast’s pubs and sights do not disappoint. Its beer reaches from good to greatness. Expect more from Northern Ireland as we head north next week.