Ireland is famous for its beers but, travelling around, it can seem that it has little to offer beyond its famous stouts1 and 'red' beers. There is, in fact, a wide and diverse selection of Irish beers largely hidden from the average tourist. Fortunately, one bar in particular seeks to redress the balance.
A Pint-Potted History
The story of The Porterhouse begins in 1989, when Liam La Hart and Oliver Hughes bought a run-down building in Bray, which became the original Porterhouse. They ran the bar with a strict philosophy, later helping to produce the Founding Charter of the Brewers and Malsters [sic] Guild of Ireland ('BaMGI'). The Charter is explored in more detail below; suffice it to say here that all the beers sold were produced strictly in 'traditional' ways to create a more organic product than mass-market beverages.
Word spread fast, the reputation of The Porterhouse grew, and in May 1996 La Hart and Hughes were confident enough to buy a premises on the junction of Essex Street East and Parliament Street (see map), on the edge of Dublin's trendy Temple Bar district. Not just a bar, the new Porterhouse incorporated a microbrewery, which now produces ten beers under the pub brand. They claim to have the widest choice of raw materials in Ireland, brewing three stouts, three lagers, three ales and a Weiss2 from a selection of eight malts and ten hops.
There are now Porterhouses in Glasnevin (in the north of Dublin city); in Covent Garden3, London; and in Barnes, London, as well as the Temple Bar and Bray outlets 4. Now winning awards for their porter, the brains behind The Porterhouse can rightly claim this as a success story.
So What's So Special?
The founding charter of the Brewers and Malsters Guild of Ireland, (relaunched in 1996 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the original Guild), sets out a modern, organic and socially responsible approach to brewing. Its key principles are:
Beer is culturally important to the Irish5.
The best beer is made purely from natural ingredients; apart from additions to give additional flavour to 'speciality beers', these are yeast, hops, cereal grains and pure water.
It should be drunk fresh whenever possible, not have its shelf life increased unnaturally, and should be treated and stored as a perishable commodity. If made naturally, it is a healthy source of nutrients and energy.
Producers have an ethical obligation to honestly educate people about the negative effects of over-indulgence and misuse, and all advertising should focus on product quality rather than presenting drink as a 'lifestyle choice.'
In addition to these, all members of the Guild must ensure that their products are free of artificial supplements. Some of these are specifically excluded from use in the Charter, such as preservatives, foam enhancers, stabilisers and synthetic sweeteners. The quality of the brewer is considered to be the main influence on the quality of the beer.
'Ireland's Largest Genuine Irish Brewery'?
An odd claim for what is, essentially, a Temple Bar microbrewery. Certainly there is a good range of quality beers, and sales reflect the high production. But there are bigger Irish names, surely? The Porterhouse is not shy in pointing out that, in January 2005:
Guinness was no longer family-owned, but was part of the multi-national Diageo group (based in London), of which only a small percentage of global sales came from Guinness's breweries worldwide. The St James's Gate brewery is far bigger than the Porterhouse, but is not Irish-owned.
Beamish has not been independent since the 1960s, since when it has had half a dozen non-Irish owners.
The 'Catholic Brewery of Cork', Murphy's, was in the hands of Dutch masters Heineken (whose 'Original' brand6 appears without a trace of irony in the fridges).
The Irish Government seems to agree with this assessment in part, as it has reduced taxation on microbrewery beers to encourage growth. This effectively makes BaMGI beers around 10% cheaper than mass-produced competitors.
The Dublin Pub
On four levels, The Porterhouse is an inviting and lively bar and, with wooden floors and heavy oak tables and benches, has a very relaxed feel. This is hardly absent from other bars in the area, but the difference here is that the atmosphere does not feel imposed for the benefit of a tourist crowd. The usual range of taps and fridges full of bottled drink crowd the bar, but there is a difference. Mass-market lagers and stouts are missing from the pumps, and a closer inspection of the fridge will reveal a happy absence of 'alcopops'. The draught beers are mainly produced on-site7, and sample trays are for sale so punters can get to know the brews without losing the use of their legs. The bottled beers come from five continents and all meet the requirements of the Guild's Charter. Alongside famous lagers like Grolsch and Becks sit beers from as far afield as Poland, Jamaica, Brazil and Finland. In fact, the choice is so bewildering, the Porterhouse produces a Beer List for each table explaining the idiosyncrasies and qualities of each of their 200-plus beers8. These are serious bartenders.
The ethos is unmistakable. Proud signs over the bar list the ingredients in Porterhouse drinks alongside the ones found in big brewery beers (the presence of benzoate being a tad worrying). Customers are also implored to avoid the advertising executives' bland branding of beers as 'ice', 'smooth' or 'brewed under licence', the suggestion being that such straplines merely hide poor beer. The friendly atmosphere cannot be overstressed, from the cheerful and patient bar staff to the chatty, international clientele. The upper floors often play host to live music, sited precariously on a large shelf above a stairwell, and there is plenty of seating overlooking the street.
In short, this is a fine and noble bar with a strict ethical approach to the craft of brewing. If you value quality above brand image, this is the choice Dublin bar.
You can find a full copy of BaMGI's charter at the website of the Biddy Early Brewery.
Or take a closer look at the Porterhouse on its own website, Porterhousebrewco.
Please remember that the legal age for drinking in the UK is 18.