Up until recently, cask ale in Dublin has been akin to an Irish summer: nearly invisible and utterly disappointing.
But REJOICE: times have (slowly) begun to change and decently maintained cask ale is making its way into the minds and livers of Dublin’s drinking public. This little post will first chat about what exactly cask ale is (in case you don’t know already), before giving you the top places in the city to fill your boots with the not-so-fizzy stuff.
What is ‘cask-conditioned ale’?
First, for any of you wondering what I’m talking about, cask-conditioned beer is unfiltered, unpasteurised, and naturally carbonated – it’s beer that’s ‘alive’ in the barrel due to the secondary fermentation that takes place in there. It can be bloody brilliant – some will argue that there’s no better way to serve beer. However, cask ales can sometimes be, well, totally rank – often through no fault of the brewer or the beer itself. Why? Because cask ales must, like your first-born, be handled with love and care. There’s an art form known as Cellarmanship – which is comparatively alive and well across the water in the good beer bars of the UK – which has been sorely lacking in Ireland. Here’s a (weirdly ’80s-themed) link giving the basics of the procedure.
In short, cask ales have to be stored, tapped, and served correctly; plus, care must be taken to monitor the condition of the beer on a regular basis, as the quality can deteriorate rapidly after three/four days of being tapped due to oxidation. Failure to do so can result in the customer receiving a lovely pint of arse-flavoured vinegar. Yum.
Cask Ale in Dublin
As I said earlier, Dublin has been, for many decades, a more-or-less cask-free zone. Admittedly, it still is compared to the UK, as corporate big-boys such as Diageo continuing to control huge shares of the beer market with their nitrogenated stouts and fizzy-piss macro lagers. (Special shout-out here goes to Molson Coors – cheers for bringing Molson Canadian across: another light lager served from a phallic red-light-flashing tap font is just what Dublin needs).
But, fear not: there’s a growing number of quality Dublin boozers who have started a mini-revolution and are pursuing quality cask ale in a big way. So, here’s my list of the top three places to get both local and British ales in great condition:
3) The Black Sheep, Capel Street.
In third place comes one of the Cottage Group’s boozers. The Black Sheep has gone from strength to strength since opening up nearly a year and a half ago. They have four cask handpumps, although they rarely all have something pouring at the same time. I’ve got to admit, I’ve had a few dodgy pints here in the past: beer that had obviously been sitting around for a week or more and had turned nasty. However, the past number of times I’ve had cask ales here, they’ve been in decent nick. The norm in The Black Sheep is two casks on during the week and three at the weekend. You’ll find a mixture of ales from local brewers such as Metalman, Carlow, and Dungarvan alongside a few of the more common British imports from the likes of Purity, Wychwood, and Fuller’s. It’s a decent and well-run place that should certainly be one of your first ports of call on a cask-hunt (plus they’ve got around 20 keg fonts to keep things interesting should there be nothing you fancy on cask).
2) The Porterhouse, Parliament Street
In second place, we’ve got a real stalwart of the Irish craft brewing scene: The Porterhouse. You’ll find three cask ales on in here on a regular basis – two on handpump and one poured directly from a tapped cask that sits on the back bar. Porterhouse’s American style pale ale ‘Hophead‘ is an absolute delight on cask, and you’ll find it pouring here regularly. They also brew a really sessionable English-style bitter called ‘TSB‘ which is decent (although not mind-blowing) at four quid a pop. As well as their own brews you’ll often find some real cask gems, including some truly world-class beers from Derbyshire’s Thornbridge (Halcyon IIPA was a revelation earlier this year), other decent British ales, and frequently casks of the delectable Metalman Pale Ale. The great thing about this place’s Temple Bar location is the fact that the beer turns over quickly: you’ll rarely see any beer sitting around for more than a few days as it’s just so damned busy. This of course means there’s a decent guarantee that the beer you’re getting will be fresh: score. I’d recommend going here earlier rather than later, unless you love large groups of Spanish tourists singing along to Don’t Stop Believing (you might, I’m not here to judge).
1) W.J. Kavanagh’s, Dorset Street
I’ll be frank, there’s not much that would make you want to go up to Dorset Street. It’s not the Champs Elysées. It’s, well, functional. And by functional, I mean grim. However, for just over a year W.J. Kavanagh’s has been giving Dublin’s beer fans a reason to make the trek up there: it’s an absolute belter of a pub. It’s the sister establishment to Stoneybatter’s much-lauded L. Mulligan Grocer, so you know that these guys are copped on.
Cask in Kavanagh’s is a way of life. A passion. An obsession. They’re lucky to have a top-class cellarman in Declan, who cut his teeth in Derbyshire (England) for a few years before coming to Dublin to put his epic knowledge of all things cask into practice. There are five (yes, FIVE…in DUBLIN) handpumps, three or four of them pouring every day (all five come out for special occasions). The key phrase here is great fecking condition. Cos that’s what all the beers are in. Always. If a beer is on the turn, it gets pulled off sale, regardless of how much is left: not great for margins perhaps, but it sure as hell sets the place apart from the competition in terms of quality.
There’s a great assortment of beers available. Plenty of Irish brews on offer (including casks from Tipperary’s White Gypsy, which aren’t found anywhere else) as well as some interesting little numbers from breweries in Derbyshire such as Dancing Duck, Derby Brewing Company, and Raw, which are only available here due to Declan’s connections. Plus, these guys were the first place in Ireland to offer a cask Irish cider earlier this year – not bad, eh? Although it could be argued that they rarely have anything truly mind-blowing pouring, you’ll always be guaranteed a solid and innovative selection of tasty brews. Twitter users should follow their account for a constantly updated stream of what’s on tap.
So there you go, my top three cask spots in Dublin. I’ll leave you with this final tip, which really is invaluable:
If you’re ordering cask ale, always ask the barman when the cask was tapped: if it’s been tapped for more than four days, don’t be shy to ask for a little taster to check that it’s still tasting OK.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, cask-conditioned ale is chocked full with B-Vitamins, so you can save yourself a few bob on buying supplements from Boots. It’s win-win.