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Kinkora Pub, 518 East Pine Street, Capitol Hill
Since January's column was to be researched and written in December, I'd fully intended to check out yet another brewpub in Seattle, perhaps reviewing said brewpub's special winter or holiday ale, stout, bock, porter, or whatever. But I've been having a lot of trouble getting excited about this year's crop of winter beers, except for perhaps Sierra Nevada and its consistently excellent Celebration Ale. Could it be because a lot of the newer brewpubs are creating German-style winter beers -- i.e. doppelbocks and dunkels -- instead of the traditional English-style brews? It's not that I have anything against the idea of German beer drinkers celebrating the Christmas season properly -- although I do tend to think more of a snowy London scene on Christmas day rather than a snowy München scene. But that's probably just my forty percent English blood along with healthy doses of Scottish, Irish and Welsh ganging up and crushing down that little fingernailful of German in my multicultural biracial Heinz-57 heritage. In other words, perhaps I am just a bit bigoted against the Deutschland's bottom-fermented beers. But I can't help it -- it's in my blood and my tastebuds.
But the German-style winter beers do tend to be milder in flavor than the English-style, although both are strong in alcohol. The tradition of special winter beers grew out of the habit of brewing higher strength beers for the Christmas season, not to mention the occasional addition of spices associated with the winter holidays. And this has been going on for a long time. The ancient Norse, who originated the term "Wassail!" (or "To health!") brewed distinctive ales in celebration of winter, along with the Romans, whose Saturnalian feasts included special wines and beers.
This is why the abundance of sweet, mild-mannered holiday beers this year bothers me. The other day I stopped by my local McMenamin's, fully intending to try this year's Kris Kringle Ale. But when the bartender grimaced while describing it as "sweet, with spices", I found myself drawn instead to a guest pint of "Dublin-style" (i.e. nitro-conditioned) Oatmeal Stout brewed by the Big Time Brewery in Seattle. What a pleasure this pint was; what a wise choice on such a windy, stormy night. For a change it wasn't overly malty or chocolately or mouth-puckering dry like so many Pacific Coast stouts are. In fact, it was very much like the namesake of "Dublin-style" stout, i.e. Guinness. Yes, a smooth, creamy, warming and uplifting stout. Now that's what a winter brew should be. Having grown up in Southern California, where we were more likely to have clear skies and an 80-degree Santa Ana condition on Christmas day than a good storm, I have this basic concept of what winter, one of my two favorite seasons (along with autumn) should be. That's one of the big reasons I moved to Seattle in the first place and why I love the British Isles -- because you can experience a properly dramatic winter without being snowbound or sunburned or bored by the monotony.
And this is why I decided to write about the Kinkora Pub this month. It's a wonderfully charming and authentic Irish tavern right in the heart of Capitol Hill's Pike-Pine Corridor. The walls are festooned with serious-looking Celtic weapons, and the big windows and sunken booths make you feel as if you're observing the world from beneath. Here you can get a proper holiday beer all year round -- i.e. an Irish stout. Kinkora gives you a choice of three: Guinness, Murphy's, or Beamish. And okay, I'll admit it, I'm a Beamish nut! I love Beamish Stout! Do you realize how hard it is to find this wonderful stout in Seattle, much less in any other American city? Sure, everyone has their cute little Beamish signs, just like the John Smith's Magnetic Beer signs and the Tetley's signs and all the quaint photos of English pubs. But Beamish is different because you can get a pint of it in this city. So why taunt me so cruelly with false promises?
Which leads one to wonder why Guinness Stout is so much more popular than Beamish Stout. After all, Guinness' St. James's Gate Brewery, which first opened in Dublin in 1759, has only thirty three years on the Beamish & Crawford Brewery in Cork City. I suppose it's really a matter of timing and size. Arthur Guinness was one of the first Irish brewers to brew "porter", a relatively new style to Ireland. (By the early 1820s the adjective "stout" had been added to describe the full-bodied character, and from this point the noun "stout" evolved.) As far as size goes, by 1914 St. James's Gate was the world's largest brewery. And today Guinness Stout is readily available around the globe, whereas Beamish remains more intriguing -- and perhaps more rewarding -- because of its rarity.
But back to my review of the pub. Normally whenever I've walked into the Kinkora the place is scantily attended, except perhaps when St. Bushmill's Choir (a local Pogues cover band) is performing. This particular evening of my most recent visit, two Saturdays before Christmas, the place was packed. My friend Celia, who truly enjoys a good smoky tavern, had a pint of her usual hefeweizen while I had my usual pint of Beamish. Normally the Clash or Shane MacGowan are blasting from the speakers. But tonight? It was "Purple Rain" by TAFKATAFKASFKASFKATAFKAPFKAP (or The Artist, formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As [squiggle], formerly known as [squiggle], formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, formerly known as Prince). And wow! What a Christmas tree! It went all the way to the ceiling, covered with pink lights and white snowflakes. There were three wise guys -- or I guess it's wise men -- on the end of the bar, Kris Kringle on the counter, and some traditional Santas under the watch of a huge gargoyle on the mantle over a blazing fire in the fireplace. Now, is this Yuletide or what?
And my pint of Beamish Stout was pure transport to a time and place where everything makes sense! What more can I say about Beamish? It's a magical brew, a wonderful comfort, a favorite blanket from one's childhood, a special teddy bear, a comforting warm hand in times of stress. Yes, take me, Beamish, into your womb, protect me, fortify me, make me withstand the Cranberries -- which, I suppose, were a logical progression from the Little Squiggly One, and at least they're Irish, but I would have prefered a little Shane MacGowan myself right then...