When traveling it is natural to compare the place you are visiting to your home. Especially since while on vacation you have a little more leisure time to seek out the things you love to do. During our stay in Cork, Will and I did an earnest study of pubs while we were in Ireland, making sure to to get a wide sampling of the local brews. I think that every Irish student has to learn to pour a perfect pint before graduating school. Stouts you expect to be poured with a certain finesse, but no matter what beer or where we were each pint was expertly filled to the brim (and served in appropriately branded glassware).
Besides just pouring, the Irish have their pubs down pat. They are full of cozy nooks, friendly bartenders, empty liquor bottles used as candle holders, and just about none of the decor you would find plastered on the wall at an “Irish” pub anywhere else in the world (though there were always a few token beer signs). Often Guinness was on tap, but it’s a Dublin beer so in Cork you’re more likely to see the local stouts, Murphy’s and Beamish, on tap. Murphy’s was originally brewed on the north side of the city and Beamish on the south, so loyalties fell accordingly. Our first beer was a Guinness, but after that we stuck to the other two. To be honest all three beers are very similar. We did a side by side comparison and the main differences were Murphy’s had a slightly richer and creamier head, and Beamish was a hint more sour (and was usually the cheapest of the three).
There would always be a stout on tap, plus a few other big name lagers like Heineken (which has a production facility in Cork), Carlsberg, and Coors Light. There are a few local craft breweries as well, and they are gaining ground. We saw Franciscan Well and Rising Sons on tap pretty regularly. I was indecisive while ordering a beer so the bartender gave me a taste of a few Irish brews, and Rising Sons’ Handsum immediately became my favorite beer of the trip (though it was later dethroned). Then I looked at the beer description and laughed at my utterly predictable taste…it is an American IPA.
Both breweries have their own pubs in the city that are worth visiting. Franciscan Well is a small spot with a beer garden out back three times their inside space (they also had woodfired pizza, which we didn’t get a chance to try). Rising Sons was on a busier street with a few tables out front. Their pub had a huge lofted ceiling and felt more like a sports bar (…probably because there was a rugby match on). They also had pizza, which we did try, and wasn’t especially exciting but 10 Euro for a pint and a pizza is hard to beat. We also listened to a man order an IPA and then complain about paying an exorbitant 5.30 Euro for his 20 ounces of beer. We should have probably warned him to not come to drink in the US. Elbow Lane is a restaurant which sells their own beer. The beer was good, but the cocktails looked particularly amazing (sadly we never got back to try them…next time). It was a much more upscale place and the small plates we tried were excellent.
The most interesting thing to me was that all of these places that brewed their own beer also had all of the other usual beers on tap as well. We talked to a few bartenders and brewers about the beer scene, and they said people were warming to the more intense, different styles there were brewing, but not necessarily embracing them wholeheartedly. From my observation there was interest in the new little guys, but a long-seated devotion to the big beers. The US has such a saturated brewing scene that a small brewery will often only pour their own beers and focus on very specific styles. There is enough business to go around that no one has to try to please everyone (and the ones who do often make an inferior product).
Part of the hold-back in adopting more American or Belgian style brewing could be the quantity beer is served in. The imperial pint is 20 ounces, and most stouts hover around 4% ABV. Imperial IPAs, Belgian triples, strong ales, and many other styles are often double that or higher. Making higher alcohol beers and adding extra ingredients adds to the cost, so such beers are often higher prices and smaller quantities. Plus Ireland has incredibly strict drunk driving laws and you are considered impaired after a single beer. In A Pint of Plain Barich guessed that this had a lot to do with the downfall of the true Irish pub, which was often isolated by farmland.
While in the end the styles of beer were not enough to make me want to relocate, the charm of the pubs could make me reconsider. They were often brightly colored, had fun names (Hi-B, The Huntsman), very often fireplaces, and even sometimes bar dogs. Stouts were a nice change of pace, with the added joy of dating a man with a full beard is that gets a mustache full of head upon every first sip. Observing the dynamic of regulars in a pub is more than enough entertainment for a pint (or two).