Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Great Drinkers?

Earlier this year, smoking was outlawed in all Irish workplaces, including pubs and restaurants. The Irish Vintners Association contested this move all the way up until the ban, fearing that it would destroy many of the businesses of its members. Now that the ban is in place, however, publicans appear to be making the best of it. A recent advertising campaign has depicted people drinking in smoke-free pubs. Beneath people's laughing, happy faces, is the slogan: 'The atmosphere's just got even better. Dublin pubs: the best pubs in the world.'

It's something Irish people are brought up to believe, that our pub culture is the envy of the civilised world. This belief partly derives from the unpleasant experiences of Irishmen in British pubs. There, the convivial atmosphere of genuine male bonding which characterises Irish booze-ups is missing, and the drinking man is treated with much less compassion at closing time. In effect, what Irish people enjoy about an Irish pub is simply the company of one another; the licensed premises merely facilitates their interaction.

The reliance of Irish people on pubs, as places where they can relax and enjoy themselves, means that the service offered by publicans has rarely been challenged. Prices are generally high and the variety of products on offer, quite limited. At a wedding recently in Co Clare, an English visitor commented to me that he found the idea of Ireland as a great drinking country to be something of a myth. 'If you don't drink Guinness, there's not much else,' he said.

He had a point. While Irish people may be great beer drinkers, they aren't drinkers of great beers. European brands, such as Heineken and Carlsberg, are brewed under licence in Ireland, and bear little resemblance to the original; it's fizzy, beer-flavoured water. And yet, Irish drinkers are more than happy to pay over-the-odds for these products. In any Dublin pub, a pint of lager will retail between €4.20 and €5.00. Although the exchequer does well out of these transactions (and in all honesty, who could begrudge the government more money?), one shudders to think about the profit margins.

The Irish cider market is monopolised by Bulmers, which offers a sweet fruit drink of 4.5% alcohol. Anyone who knows anything about cider will tell you that its natural alcoholic content is somewhere around 7.2%; anything above or below that point should be treated with suspicion. Again, Irish drinkers think nothing of stumping up a fiver for a pint of this stuff, which they have come to revere as the ultimate summer drink. (Dear God, the power of advertising…)

And so there you have the average Irish pub: a place heaving with undiscerning halfwits, paying inflated prices for mediocre fare. In the background stand the publican, the taxman and the brewer, all cackling wickedly about eejits with more money than sense. Thankfully, it isn't all this bleak (or black).

In recent years, the Porterhouse has revived Dublin's brewing tradition, and produces a range of stouts, lagers and ales, which it serves at its two premises in Temple Bar (city centre) and Phibsborough (north side). The Porterhouse also imports bottled beers from all over the world, so it truly is a beer-lover's paradise. Two of its stouts, Oyster and Wrastler's, offer tangy, complex flavours that seem a world apart from the mass-produced Guinness which dominates the city's drinking. Unfortunately, not everyone who visits the Porterhouse takes advantage of the quality and variety on offer. As a barman at the Phibsborough branch said, 'Some of them come all this way to drink Coors Light'.

In addition to the Porterhouse, several Dublin off-licences offer a greater range of quality beers than would be available at most retail outlets. Oddbins, which has several branches around the city, is primarily a wine-merchant, but it also stocks English real ales, and Belgian, Dutch and German beers. Imported Heineken from Amsterdam is a real treat for the taste-buds; brewed to 5% alcohol, it's far more flavoursome and hoppy than the 4.3% dishwater available on tap in pubs. Belgian brands, such as Leffe, Duvel and Verboden Frucht are so sweet and overwhelming, it's as near a sensation to being 'taken' or ravished that a straight man is likely to get in this life.

Elsewhere in Dublin, Redmond's of Ranelagh and Sweeney's on Drumcondra Road stock an amazing selection of beers. Clearly, there is a market for quality beers, but at present, it isn't being explored by the hospitality sector in Ireland. It's too cheap and easy to throw the usual mass-produced muck at consumers and then rake in the profits. Of course, we're not alone in this. In Britain, which is home to many small breweries producing delightful real ales, publicans do their best business with thirsty brain-donors who want nothing other than frozen, tasteless lagers. The delicate handling required by real ale isn't worth the bother. It's a shame; beer is as rewarding and noble a drink as wine but doesn't enjoy the same social status. The beer cognoscenti are stereotyped as bearded, woolly jumper men in sandals with nothing better to talk about than hop varieties. It doesn't have to be this way; come out of the closet, beer lovers – it's society's crime, not ours.

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