The success of brewer Bernard Sloan’s decision to “try something a little different” to the beers he’s been producing at his Whitewater brewery in Castlewellan, among the most modern in Ireland, took him by surprise last week when he lifted the prestigious Great Taste Golden Fork for Northern Ireland.
“I developed the beer, the first Imperial Russian Stout brewed here, some months ago as a bit of an experiment and landed an initial order from Sweden before deciding to pitch it into the Great Taste Awards,” he says.
“I wanted some feedback from the judges on the new beer, our Kreme dela Kremlin Imperial Russian Stout,” he continues. “It’s a very rich and strong beer with 10.5 percent alcohol rating. It came as a very pleasant surprise when it was ranked by the expert judges among the top products in the awards. Winning the Golden Fork for the tastiest Northern Ireland product in 2019 was amazing. I believe the stout is the first from here to win a Golden Fork,” he adds.
The taste experts loved the stout’s “intense chocolatey nose that beckons the drinker in” and “offers balance of sweet, bitter and spice on the palate”.
A dairy industry engineer, Bernard founded Whitewater Brewery, among the very first craft breweries here, in 1996 on the family farm at Attical, near Kilkeel, to add another revenue stream for the dairy business.
The success of his beers eventually led him to seek larger premises for further growth. He subsequently decided to build a spanking new brewery in Castlewellan.
He adds that the funky Russian stout is “a strong and richly flavoured dark beer that’s been carefully brewed and then aged for 12 weeks in whiskey casks at the brewery in the picturesque foothills of the Mournes. “As a result, it packs quite a punch!”
The award, he continues, will also help to highlight the brewery as a tourism centre. He recently completed a purpose-built visitor centre there for this purpose.
“It’s a shame that Northern Ireland’s restrictive licensing laws prevent us from selling our beers to visitors. I believe that this is the only part of the British Isles which now prevents alcoholic products being sold on-site to visitors. We are supporting the imaginative Taste the Island celebration that encourages visitors to breweries and distilleries. They can now buy in the Republic but not in Northern Ireland,” he adds.
As well as its own canning line, Whitewater supplies its range of beers and stout in bottles and casks. It also provides contract bottling and canning for other craft brewers and consultancy services for breweries and bars.
Whitewater has won Great Taste stars and World Beer titles in the past for other popular beers including Maggie’s Leap, an ale named after a folklore figure in the Mournes. It’s extremely popular with beer lovers in Japan.The beers are also on sale in parts of Europe and in Singapore.
But why an Imperial Russian Stout?
Bernard explains: “I wanted to brew a beer that was a bit stronger and richer in flavour. Tradition suggests that Russian Imperial Stout was first brewed in England for Emperor Peter the Great of Russia in the 17th century. They tend to be higher in alcohol than traditional stouts. They can be full bodied, rich, and complex, and will often have flavours and aromas of dried fruit, coffee, and dark chocolate.”
Peter the Great is reported to have fallen in love with stout, strong beers, during a visit to England in 1698. Bernard has also honoured another historic feature of the stout in the quirky Kreme dela Kremlin branding.
Other stouts in the market, mostly American, rejoice in branding such as Old Rasputin after the ‘mad monk’ who contributed to the downfall of the Russian Imperial family before the outbreak of war in 1914 and the Soviet revolution and Marshal Zhukov, the World War 2 Soviet general.
Castlewellan’s Kreme dela Kremlin hasn’t reached the Russian capital and it’s highly unlikely that the current incumbent of the Kremlin has been able to experience the award-winning stout…yet!
“Sweden is the closest we’ve reached so far with the stout,” Bernard continues. “We’ve begun shipping it to Systembolaget, the Swedish government-owned chain of 450 liquor stores. Liquor sales there are highly regulated especially in terms of quality.
“Winning the business with Systembolaget, therefore, was an immensely important development for us in what is a substantial marketplace,” he adds.
The stout faced rigorous procedures that included exacting taste panels, he explains. “It passed with flying colours and was subsequently selected for launch in the run up to the Christmas season under the Celtic Christmas Stout label,” he adds.