Sunday, August 19, 2012

Gimme a Pint with those Galoshes and Bike Chains

Sure, the whole point of drinking beer is to relax (Not get crazy and do wild stunts like keg stands? Interesting theory...continue). So you might think that the whole concept of "multitasking" is at odds with  proper beer drinking etiquette (Well chuh, it's why one never guzzles AND smashes the can on one's forehead at the same time).

Turns out, not even a little bit. Not when you multitask like they do in Dingle.

Earlier this year, with family visiting, we traveled waaaaaay out to one of Ireland's western fingers: Dingle Peninsula, in County Kerry. This little town has some renowned pubs that recall the ancient purpose of a public house as a place of cozy communal gathering (fortunately, so unlike the Branch Davidians, who had a different kind of cozy communal gathering). Dick Mack's may well have been an old house, with its multiple rooms and coal-burning fireplace and ancient woodwork (I think he means House of Usher meets the Shrieking Shack). Foxy John's could well have been the workroom of that same house. (And no joke, I think these pubs were connected by some labyrinthine network of hallways... and they weren't by any means next door.)

The most fascinating aspect of these pubs, though, wasn't the beer (mostly the Irish usuals - with one exception), and it wasn't even the inhabitants (though they might have come a close second). It was their multi-purposeness.

Dick Mack's may be a world-famous pub, but it's also a leather-working shop and a shoe shop from way back inna day (yes, when solid floors, walls, and ceilings were optional or even kitsch). Drinks may be their primary focus now, but on the shelves next to a painted portrait of Dick Mack himself (being served by a leggy waitress, no less), there are still bright blue Wellies and strips of hide and old cardboard shoe boxes with varying quantities of dust (Oh is that what that was? I didn't know dust could husk...). But unlike any Bennigan's you ever visited, none of the items was mere decor. Everything was for sale, and if you were lucky, you could still get your leather punched.

Foxy John's didn't bother to trade in leather and shoes. Nope. Instead, it decided to be your grandpa's garage combined with a bike shop. We only got to sit there for 45 minutes or so, and no joke, in that time people bought a bike chain, a flashlight, and some washers. More home repair must be attempted per capita in Dingle than anywhere else in the world - "Honey, the toilet's broken again, and I need a... er... a bolt to fix it! I'll be right back!" An hour later: "Oh shoot! I got the wrong size. I gotta head over to the hardware store again!"

Like I said, the beer was pretty much the usual at these shopubs. Foxy John's, though, carried the local selection from the Dingle Brewing Company: Tom Crean's Lager. It's named for the Antarctic explorer, and (like an Irish beer named for an Antarctic explorer) it defies your expectations of a lager. The head is wide and white -- fair enough so far -- but it's also thick, like you'd expect on a much stouter beer (and how apt for a beer from the land of thick-eternal-fog). And the lager itself is, in a word, creamy (like sarsaparilla, root beer, or cream soda creamy! I wanted to pour my Crean's over ice cream, it was that good!). I had to make sure my brain wasn't simply applying a misspelling of "Crean" to my taste sensations, because I hardly believed it. Sure enough, it's a creamy feeling and tasting lager. What a treat!

Dingle proved to be a tiny beer mecca (which was some consolation, considering your family went there intent on its stunning coastal views which were perpetually bashful and shrouded in that eternal-fog the whole time). If you should be there in the on-season (oh, late March to probably September), see if you can find the Canteen. The food was heeeeeeeeavenly (I've been craving pork and applesauce ever since), but the owners are also big supporters of Irish beer and cider. We learned about three or four different brands while we were there, and poof! our horizons were broadened. Not bad for a little town barely accessible by car!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Stirrin' Up Pub Trouble

One of the best parts of living abroad in Ireland is living in a small village with a neighborhood pub. While bars in Dublin city proper transform into seething, swilling jabberwockies by 5:30 p.m. (you should see the people inside!), the neighborhood pub is different beast altogether. Most nights the neighborhood pub is chill. Most afternoons, it sports the kind of quiet and lonely desolation that two desert dwellers can appreciate. But when Leinster is playing Ulster in a rugby tourney, or when Tipperary is going head to head with Kilkenny in a hurling final, the neighborhood pub metamorphoses. It swells with people, food, drink, and laughter. (Sports fans, you know to read that as collective groaning, whooping, cheering, and cursing.) Zach and I had the fortunate experience of relaxing in the pub when it unexpectedly transformed. We did not know a game would be on, but we soon discovered how lucky we were to have seats.

Recently we squeezed our way into the local pub, Fitzgerald's, when the Euro Cup was on the telly. Ireland's team had already been tragically, embarrassingly eliminated early on (I hear they mistakenly sent their Gaelic football team to play soccer), which meant that the mood in the pub was a little more dour than usual. But Germany was up against Greece, and for the locals, this was the perfect opportunity to cheer on underdog Greece and boo the evil Sith Lord of the Euro Zone (Germany). (Yeah, if the Sith were... shit, you're right! They ARE the Sith Lords of Europe!) To be clear, Germany is not evil for dumping hundreds of millions of euros into the coffers of struggling countries like Ireland, Greece, and others, but from the perspective of those struggling, they do feel as if Germany has them by the short-hairs. (Darth Pube?) So how better to exorcise those frustrations than to raucously ring a big leaden bell every time Greece scores against Germany?

I say all this as preface to the following: Zach is a huge Germanophile. He lived there for a year, teaching English on a Fulbright (I know, he's such a smarty). And public attitudes in Ireland be damned--there was no way he was going to sit through one of Germany's games and not cheer each and every time they scored. Loving him devotedly as I do, I lent my voice to the cause.

Happily, I can report that while we were the only two people cheering for Germany in the whole pub (I now know how awkwardly delightful clapping loudly in a silent pub, and following it up with a German cheer can be), we were never threatened, slugged, clobbered, or refused service, which was handy because we were very keen to try some of the local Irish brews newly available.

I had the Currim Gold Celtic Wheat, made by the Carlow Brewing Co. Being the rapscallion he is, Zach ordered trouble...that is to say, he got the Dark Arts Porter by Trouble Brewing. I'd like to give a glowing, perhaps even golden, review of the Currim, but there was just something not right between it and my taste buds. The smell rising up from the thin head was fishier than a barrel of trout. The taste was metallic, reminiscent of, well, the top of a 6-volt battery (you know the big block kind with springs on top; the ones your prank-loving dad or uncle is always trying to get you to lick when you're young and don't know any better) (ahem. Some of us always knew better), which was a doubly-unfortunate way to taste given the copper-top color of the brew.

Knowing that not all beers are best at an icy cold temperature, I decided to let my Currim warm up a little. This proved a moderately worthwhile decision. The warmth turned my fishy Duracell into something almost akin to a lager, a bit like Red Stripe. Because it was not enough of a change to turn this frothy frog into a pintly prince, I let my tongue and Currim part ways--both citing irreconcilable differences--and asked the barman for a Stonewell Cider. Somehow, perhaps magically, the Nohoval Brewing Co. out in Cork has managed to bottle the crisp taste and feel of a dewy, apple-harvesting autumn sunrise in New England. Now, there are plenty of wonderful Irish ciders worth trying when you're here, but unlike a lot of others, the Stonewall does not candy-coat the mouth. It drinks dry like a good wine, only it bubbles with the fun of an even better champagne.

I stuck with one of my Fitzgerald standbys: not the Beamish, though I do prefer a pint of the southern stout to Guinness, but the aforementioned Dark Arts Porter, reportedly named for the mystical part of the brewing process not quite explainable by science. The Fitz has Trouble bottled, rather than on tap, so I also get to enjoy their sense of humor on the label (think cartoonish voodoo doll). Being bottled, it's not overly carbonated; nor does it have the nitrogenated head people expect from an Irish stout. (I've never tried it on tap, and would be curious to know what the head is like on one of those.) This porter is a strong example of what a stout can be when it's not afraid to have flavor; some may not like it, but those who enjoy their beer leaning toward the chocolate, coffee, and toffee side of the spectrum will enjoy the Dark Arts. Sometimes by the end of a bottle it's a bit too sweet for my preference--not too much of the ol' bitterness by any means--but not so sweet that it can't be enjoyed with a meal, or on its own. Though it would be an excellent dessert beer...

And it was in the midst of enjoying this cider, cheering yet another of Germany's goals when the kingly old gent sitting beside us on the built-in wall-bench took up a sudden cussing-finger-flipping contest with another man on his way out of the pub. Now, I say kingly, because up til then, this benevolent ol' chap had sat in the corner, sipping his pint of the black stuff, leisurely reading the paper. He'd even leaned over a few times to consult Zach on the score of the match, the state of German affairs, and occassionally practice speaking the language. (Personally, I think he was 90% of the reason why we weren't thrown out for cheering for Germany.) Besides that, the chap flirted with the young waitresses, coaxing them to bend over and count his change (verifying he was paying enough for each beer) so that he could indulge in the wonders of their young cleavages. He was right ol' sovereign, a regular who clearly conducted court. Indeed, none of the other locals could leave the bar for the day unless they had stopped by this gent and paid their respects. And so it was that as one such local man was about to leave, he spotted the sovereign, smiled, and flipped up his middle finger. The ol' gent responded in kind, giving the bird the European way, which is to flash the back side of your peace sign. (He leaned over to Zach to say, "He gives me one finger, well I'll give him two!") Then there was playful repartee, along the lines of:

Local Man
You bleepity-bleep-blank-blank!

Ol' Gent
Where have you been all evening, you blankety-bleeper?

Local Man
How long were you sitting there all by y'self? Oh, sorry, miss (to me), I don't mean to cuss in front of a lady, but I was going to call him a bleepity-bleep-blank-blank and a bleep with bleep's blank, until I saw you sitting there. (Everyone laughed then.)

This is all so accurate that I can't add anything. He was bleepity-bleep-blanking hilarious. And the buxom waitresses didn't seem to mind him, either.

It was a funny moment to get caught in the middle of, but otherwise, it so encapsulated the magic of the neighborhood pub.