I recently got stuck in Ireland. Then I got stuck into this delicious Irish dry stout: Whitewater Brewery’s Belfast Black stout.
Name: Belfast Black
Style: Dry stout
Numbers: 4.2% ABV, IBUs unknown
Brewer: Whitewater Brewery, Kilkeel, Co. Down, Ireland
I want to avoid any politics in this article, which, as an Englishman writing about Ireland, might be tough. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ireland (except when they beat England at rugby), but it’s hard to write about Irish geography and history without pissing somebody off.
Last week I was in Dublin doing some consulting work for Guinness. Long story short, I missed my flight from Dublin back to New York. (Several pints of the delicious black stuff on the back of an overnight flight, two hours’ sleep, 9am flight – that ought to give you the gist.) I was stood in front of the help desk for United Airlines at Dublin Airport (who were, to be fair, very helpful) dealing with the fallout of an unsuccessful plea to be allowed through security 20 minutes before my flight.
“Well sir, it looks like there are no flights with space out of Dublin for four days…” came the response I did not want to hear. “But I can fly you out of Belfast at 11am tomorrow.”
I had been to Ireland four times before, but had never ventured further north than a handful of miles out of Dublin. Certainly not to Northern Ireland.
“All right,” I replied with some trepidation, “I’ve never been and it’d be fun to see it. Please book me that flight.”
At which point the brief geography lesson begins, and I’ll be as concise and objective as I can.
Ireland is a relatively small island (32,000 square miles, about the same as South Carolina; 6.5 million people, about the same as Tennessee) that contains two political states: the Republic of Ireland, which makes up about 5/6 of the landmass and about 3/4 of the population, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. At various points in history Ireland has been invaded by, conquered by, inhabited by and annexed to Great Britain, and from 1800 to 1922 was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. (As an Englishman, believe me, I do not feel too awesome about our historical belligerence toward our Celtic neighbours.) In 1921, after several uprisings – including the famous Easter Uprising of 1916 – an Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, giving the Irish Free State near total independence. This led inexorably to the now completely independent Republic of Ireland, but it kept Northern Ireland as part of the UK.
You see, after almost 800 years of some degree of settlement by Britain and very close ties with it, a sizable chunk of the population, making up the majority of folks in the northern counties, vehemently wanted to be a part of the UK. At the same time, a smaller but not insignificant number of people living in what would become Northern Ireland vehemently wanted to be a part of the Republic of Ireland. This conflict of desires and differing senses of nationhood has been the crux of the “Irish problem” ever since, and has led to horrific violence and acts of terrorism by people on both sides.
So when I was growing up in London in the 1980s and 1990s, Belfast was considered off-limits. The deep political instability had hugely restricted its economic development, and the ongoing urban warfare made it pretty dangerous. Particularly if you were English.
Thankfully various peace processes and negotiations between all parties during the ’90s and ’00s have enormously stabilized the whole of Ireland, and it is now fast catching up economically and culturally. Indeed, Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland and second largest Irish city after Dublin, is considered an undiscovered gem in Europe. And its surrounding country is famously beautiful.
So I jumped in a rental car and made my way north.
After a wonderfully scenic and meandering drive up the Irish east coast I settled into my last minute hotel then went out and explored the Ulster evening under charcoal skies.
Yes, Belfast is beautiful. It has a gritty but balanced character that I’ve never seen anywhere else. (The closest comparison is the horribly underrated city of Glasgow in Scotland.) Big enough to feel busy, small enough to charm. Love it.
A quick perusal of the best bit of the internet in our time, Yelp.com, led me swiftly to a modern, highly praised farm-to-table eatery in the shadows of Belfast City Hall, aptly named Made In Belfast. It was exactly what I was in the mood for. We New Yorkers often feel smug about how spoilt we are with niche, one-of-a-kind hipster bars and restaurants, but frankly other cities with far fewer quality spots often outdo all but the top echelon of NYC joints. (Something to do with quality over quantity I’m sure.)
Made In Belfast is very cool. Well appointed and put-together furnishings fill a room with just the right level of cosiness, avant-garde atmospherics and modernity to let you know you’re in a unique, much-loved place. (Although there are – ahem – three restaurants in the group. I’m sure the other two feel equally unique.) The concise menu showcases locally sourced ingredients and an unfussy, diligent focus on taste and flavour.
I ordered the fresh orange and carrot soup and a burger, then turned my attention to drinks. An excellent cocktail list was very enticing – especially when I saw fellow diners being served some well turned out creations – but when I want to connect to a place I opt for beer.
My eye was grabbed by Belfast Black, a dry stout from Whitewater Brewery. Thanks to Guinness, and to a lesser extent Murphy’s and Beamish, the dry stout style is synonymous with Ireland. Never in my life had I tried a dry stout from Northern Ireland, and I am a stout fanatic. Easy choice.
Bernard Sloan and his wife Kerry founded Whitewater (not to be confused with a brewery of the same name in Ontario, Canada) on their family farm in 1996, the same year as Stone Brewing in San Diego. It has become the largest micro brewery in Northern Ireland, winning several awards for its small selection of traditional-style #craft beers.
The stout poured out a rich, effervescent ruby obsidian, bursting into a thick and stubborn ivory foam. This is a carbonated stout (did you know nitrogenated beer, which we now consider typical for stout, was only invented by Guinness in 1959 to celebrate their 200th anniversary?), but clearly the protein from the various malts used to brew it, combined with oats for a more unctuous mouthfeel, has an effect on the head so that the poured pint has the classic black and white look of an Irish pint.
To match its intense head, the beer had a headily intense aroma. Not a smack-you-in-the-chops nose of the sort you’d expect from an American stout these days, but certainly one with more punch than a more old-school stout like a Guinness Original. I smelt prominent malt aromas, like earthy grains, dark chocolate, coffee, caramel and toasted wholegrain. There was a very faint metallic rusty note, which was actually quite appealing. The hops were herbaceous with a light grassy edge. The yeast, from The Old Belfast Brewery according to the label (a now defunct brewery?), imparted some light spicy and slightly nutty phenol aromas.
This beer is a rich mouthful too, with the use of oats as an adjunct helping to thicken it up, as anticipated. It has a strong spine of malt, with a good balance of hop bitterness and even a slightly salty edge. Very quaffable, as they say.
And an eminent partner for my burger!
My heartiest congratulations to Whitewater Brewery on their excellent stout, and to Made In Belfast for providing such an amenable ambience in which to enjoy it. The unexpected and unplanned evenings are often the best.
Belfast, you rock. I hope I’ll be back soon.