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My favourite beer I’ve ever tasted is one produced in the very town I’ve lived in most of my life. I’m lucky one of Ireland’s foremost craft breweries set up shop in Dungarvan, and their Comeragh Challenger, when on cask, is the best beer in the world.
It’s a tall claim, and also one difficult to verify. It’s only available on cask in a select number of locations in Ireland, one of which just so happens to be one of my favourite bars, Merrys – also of Dungarvan fame. It’s a beer which was originally intended to be a seasonal, but by petition of the customers of Merrys is now produced on cask for this location year round – and for good reason!
To be entirely honest, this beer in bottle form is nothing special. Like a lot of beers, especially of this old-english ale style, it comes into it’s own when served naturally carbonated from a cask, through a hand pump beer engine. It has all the good qualities of an IPA – hop character, a bitter finish. It also has none of the bad qualities which many IPAs inhibit – offensive bitterness, overwhelming hop character and poor balance. From the cask, it’s got a creamy texture and mouthfeel – it’s almost as if it’s on nitro. It’s really something special. I’m one of the least nostalgic people you’ll ever meet, and it’s by sheer coincidence that it’s produced in my home town.
I’ve had some comparable beers in the US, always on cask. Typically it’s a moderate, low-mid-bitterness IPA which has been put to cask, but the lack of that Maris Otter base malt disappoints. By the nature of cask beer, with its short shelf, Comeragh Challenger will likely never make it to the US in its perfect form. It’s time for action!
I’ve tried to reverse engineer Comeragh Challenger as best I could. The web site entry tells us much. First, as the name suggests, the bitterness comes from not Comeragh Hops (that’d be impressive), but Challenger Hops. Most English Bitters are brewed with Marris Otter, and some English Crystal malt for colour – a @dungarvanbrewco tweet verifies this. Lastly, Boston water is incredibly soft. Dungarvan water, and the water where English Bitters are traditionally brewed is quite the opposite, so I’ve altered the water profile from my Boston tapwater by adding some Calcium Sulfate.
My first attempt of this recipe used some Maris Otter liquid malt extract, as I hadn’t yet developed the confidence in my All Grain technique – but here’s the All Grain recipe I’ll be trying next batch:
Most of the 5 gallon batch 4 gallons thereof was kegged with relatively low carbonation, as suits the style. The last gallon I carbonated naturally with some table sugar in a plastic ‘cubetainer’ – a bit like a cask.
Contrary to advice, I didn’t vent this container at any point – risking a nasty explosion, but kept it in a bucket to be safe.
On tap, the kegged portion of the batch was a fantastic session-able bitter, not far from the bottled product of Dungarvan Brewing Company.
In the plastic ‘cask’ though, the flavours of this really came to life. Very close to the original beer in cask, the only thing lacking was the creamy mouthfeel a beer engine (I.e. the hand pump found in traditional pubs) would provide. Alas, these pumps are expensive – my poor mans alternative shall suffice for now.
The keg met it’s end with a summer pool party we hosted with some friends – with easily 3 gallons disappearing in one day, which is testimony of the success of the brew. While I don’t usually brew the same beer twice with any regularity, preferring variety to perfection, I’m sure this bitter will be returning to my taps at some point very soon!