Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Teeny-Tiny Woman and Her Teeny-Tiny Pub

This post is more about the location than the beer (though don't get me wrong, I'll cover that, too).

We have more on the rest of our visit to Moneygall over on our traveling writers' blog: Writers Gone Isled. But we just have to talk about one of the more memorable Irish pubs here.

To set the stage: Moneygall is a teeny-tiny town with one main street (now for the fairy-tale remix: Once there was a teeny tiny woman in a teeny tiny town with a teeny tiny pub...), and no one had heard of it until Barack and Michelle visited it in May of 2011 (after they discovered they were really the O'bamas). Our friend and host Eimear just happens to have grown up there. It has precisely two pubs, as far as we could tell, and they are right across the street from one another (huh, maybe that's where Starbucks got the idea...). The larger of the two is more or less what you expect out of an Irish pub (leprechauns dancing on the tables? CCR and Bob Dylan cover bands?).

The smaller one is exceptional. Here it is from the outside:

Instead of dim iridescent lighting, J Hayes Bar has a strip of bare fluorescent bulbs across the ceiling. The counter is Formica-topped, and just high enough that you feel slightly small leaning against it. There are two beers on tap (Guinness and Smithwick's) (pronounced Smith-icks...emphasis on the "icks"), a mini-fridge with bottles of Miller and cans of Heineken, a row of whiskeys and such along the back mirror, and a paper Obama mask above a small Obama bobblehead. The wall has framed pictures of various get-togethers that might have been in 1987 as easily as 2007.

All this might be strange on its own (or potentially creepy). The woman behind the bar, though, turns it all into the most remarkable pub we've ever visited. Her name is Julia, she's about 81 years old, and she is the sole proprietor and bartender. (To hear her tell it, she got behind the bar when she was 16 and basically never left that post!)

She greeted everyone who entered by name (their real names, not the generic "Hey...guy" or "Howdy partner"). I've never seen any barkeep do that for reals, or outside of Cheers. (Everyone except for Jenny and me, of course, but straight away she got our names down. I imagine for weeks she'll be talking about the two Mexicans who visited her. Sharp as a tack, Julia is, but deaf to the word "New," it seems.) Her handshake was firm, her smile genuine, and straight away you knew this woman was anything but doddering, no matter how much her pub resembles your grandma's kitchen (yeah, if grandma left the liquor cabinet unlocked).

She poured and pulled our selections. She was adorable with the condensation on glasses and bottles -- for whatever reason, she could not stand a single drop to smudge the glass, so she would run her hands firmly down the sides until the unmarred glass glistened. My Guinness might not have been pulled perfectly to the Guinness corporate standards, but I've never seen a beer pulled more carefully or more caring. She got every drop into the glass that would fit, and with a slow and steady hand delivered it to my section of Formica.

Best Guinness I've ever had. It wasn't just the atmosphere, either. It was smoother, richer, less bitter. However Julia takes care of her draft lines, or whatever grandmotherly tenderness goes into her pub, the results shine through in her pints. Anyone going through Ireland and seeking the best Guinness can just skip the official Storehouse tour and go straight to Moneygall. (This is a certifiable fact, as far as I'm concerned. I sipped that Guinness and could not believe my tongue! For once, this big-business brew did not taste flat or stale, as it usually does in any other pub! And here we thought we could go a whole year without blogging on the behemoth of dark barley...)

The back door opened at intervals so that some fellow (no idea who he was) could give us updates on the European soccer championships (Greece advanced, Russia was eliminated) (the interruptions were delightfully surreal, like the cut-aways on Family Guy). Eimear's former coach, a swell guy named Rody, popped in for his usual, and he ended up buying us all a drink. (He missed his chance to say, "A round for the house!" You always say it when there's fewer than five folks in the pub.)

We chatted away with Rody, with Julia, and the whole evening was my first true experience of truly small-town life. Julia knows Eimear's family better than Eimear does, and the moment Eimear ducked out of the room, Julia leaned over and assured us in the most confidential of tones that you couldn't find a better family than the Ryans. (Actually, Julia possessed that admirable quality of being able to talk honestly and openly about anyone in the room or absent. She mostly referred to everyone as "lovely," but I genuinely believed that's just how she sees the world.)

We could have stayed in Julia's pub all night (and might have if Eimear never stood up and put on her coat. Julia's atmosphere, though fluorescent and odd, is hypnotizing. The whole occasion zooms in on the microcosm of families, stories, and the mysteries of the human heart one can only properly discuss when under the influence. You settle in and never again think of the outside world again. Kind of like going to Neverland. Now, isn't that what having a neighborhood snug is all about?)

Eimear, being a good tour guide, wanted to show us the competition across the street, and in fairness we wanted to see it -- the pub where the Obamas famously pulled and sipped a Guinness. But before we left, we were sure to capture the true spirit of the evening in a photograph:

Note Julia's death grip (a.k.a. grandmotherly love-grip) on Jenny's arm, and how Jenny is only one centimeter shorter than the President. (oh, does that mean I am tall enough to be president one day?)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Backyard Holiday, or Dwarf-Roasting

Earlier this month, Jenny and I seized on a special summer opportunity -- we ATE OUTSIDE (like deer! No, wait something cooler...like polar bears!). All of you back in Albuquerque are snickering right now because eating dinner on a back patio is a totally regular and normal activity. In Sandycove, if it's not raining, it's windy, and if it's not windy, it's cold, and if it's none of those things, then there are two (hungry-and-adorable-beggin'-for-scraps) dogs and various small children (also adorable without beggin' for scraps) in the backyard, not to mention the patio table and chairs are the favorite home of island spiders (polar bears don't like spiders). We love the dogs, and our landlords and their family are wonderful -- but their backyard is not always conducive to dining.

So when we had the chance, we grabbed it. The "neighbors" were out of town with their dogs, and while the night might have been cooler than we prefer (W-w-w-what is he t-t-t-talking ab-b-bout? It-t-t-t was f-f-f-f-fine...), it was at least clear and dry. So we took our homemade stir-fry out back, sat our own spider-free dining room chairs on the patio, and popped a couple brews that had been waiting in our fridge for just such a moment as this one.

On this night I sipped a Ginger Beard (Fiery Alcoholic Ginger Beer, 4.2%). The Wychwood Brewery of Oxfordshire, England proudly proclaims they are Brewers of Character. So with moral qualms aside, I was able to relax as the beer rolled over my tongue.

I'll admit my expectations were high for the Ginger Beard (ironic, considering there's a dwarf on the label) -- Wychwood is known for its Hobgoblin and Scarecrow beers, both of which Jenny and I have enjoyed on particularly fine Albuquerque summer evenings. And this one lived up to standard. You won't like it if you really don't like ginger (what's not to like?) -- but if you're only opposed to the harsh face-puckering bitterness of strong ginger (oh yeah, that), this beer takes care of that problem (oohh, sounds so...mobster). The ginger element was spicy and snappy -- honestly not as fiery as the label suggests, though I was perfectly fine with that, having recently tried a non-alcoholic ginger beer with enough fire to roast a dozen dwarves (now that would be an episode of the Soprano's worth watching!). No, this ginger was smooth, like a well buffed car. You could run your finger over the polished taste of this one, and you wouldn't produce so much as a squeak (oh yeah? well what happens when you start the beer's engine?). It was an excellent complementary beer for the right meal, which the stir fry was. Yummers!

Jenny also branched outside of the Republic, though she at least stayed on the island with her selection. Only she can do this oddly-named beer justice:

I partook of the Clotworthy Dobbin from Whitewater Brewery in Northern Ireland. Yes, I know it sounds like I sat out back sucking on something from a hospital cabinet, but the Clotworthy's taste is worlds away from its name. According to the bottle, Mr. C. Dobbin was an old-timey brewer, ca. 1800s, and this beer was named to honor his legacy.

And what an honor it is! The Clotworthy is definitely drinkworthy. It was smooth like a nut brown ale, only with a bit more bite. Not much more. Maybe as much as puppy teeth. 

Were I recommending this beer to my fellow-female bookish types, I might make the following comparison (in keeping with the spirit of the past, the British Empire, and all things literarily smooth and brown): (and please say this in your own snobbiest accent) If the Santa Fe Nut Brown is Rochester, then Whitewater's Dobbin is nothing short of Wickham! 

Okay, enough snooty references for now. Back to Zach and his dwarf-roasting! 

The meals disappeared too quickly
(chattering teeth chew quicker is all), and the trace heat from the day's "sunshine" dissipated (jeez, guess we should have kept those dwarf-fires burning, eh?). We stubbornly remained outside, sipping our beers and enjoying the pleasures of an Irish evening (dwarves thinking of visiting Ireland: be warned). We whistled tunes on our beer bottle flutes, accompanied by the matchbox-castanets of cackling magpies scheming to steal... well, anything they could lay their beaks on.

With the little birds providing the entertainment, and Jenny providing the company, the beers were almost inconsequential (a shame when you think of all the Gimli's who gave their lives...), despite how much we enjoyed them. (Hey, I said nearly!)