For St. Patrick’s Day, I wanted to do a special post about Irish beer. I know for most people, myself included, the words “Irish Beer” immediately brings beers like Guinness, Smithwick’s and Murphy’s to mind, and styles like “Irish Red” – but is that all there is to Irish beer?
Looking for answers, I decided I simply didn’t know enough about Irish Beer to post authoritatively about it. I started to think about someone who could help me out and one person came to mind. That someone is John, better known in the beer world as “The Beer Nut“. I’d like to thank John “The Beer Nut” for taking the time to share his thoughts (and images) on Irish Beer – Past, Present and Future.
When Scott asked me to do a piece on Irish Beer for The Brew Club, he asked if Irish Red was my favourite beer style, which is akin to asking an American if American Light Lager is theirs!
Both styles have a proud ancestry — British pale ale and Czech pilsner, respectively — but these beers have reached their present bland forms through the gradual downgrading of the product by large corporations seeking the lowest-common-denominator of the market.
The big brewing interests finally took control of Irish beer in the middle of the twentieth century. The last of Dublin’s independent stout breweries closed down and London-based Guinness completed their work of purging the very memory of the city’s formerly vibrant brewing heritage. The names that were once familiar to every drinker — D’Arcy, Watkins, Findlater, Sweetman, O’Connell — were removed from the record by Guinness. History, it seems, is erased by the victor.
By 1960, Guinness had also taken over the nation’s ale brewing concerns. Independent breweries like Smithwick’s, Cherry’s and Macardle-Moore had grouped together to protect themselves from predatory takeover, only to provide Guinness with just one company to buy up instead of several. Only in rebel Cork were there holdouts against the British beer monopoly, though even the two great porter breweries there eventually fell into foreign hands. Today both Beamish and Murphy’s are property of Dutch giant Heineken, with the historic Beamish brewery closed down and up for sale.
Freed from the need to make better beer than the brewery next door, the macros turned their attention to maximising their market share and profit margins. Cask beer was an early casualty, with Guinness inventing nitrogenation to replace it. Drinkers that were used to waiting for their lively barrel-pulled stout to subside before the barman topped it off were forced to sit through the pointless ritual of a two-part keg pour — something that makes absolutely no difference to the taste of their beer. Hopping rates plummeted along with serving temperatures, and Ireland’s hop growers, unable to survive in a consolidated buyers’ market, tore up their hop gardens.
Consistency, more than flavour, became the watchword for the big breweries. Guinness’s unreliable wooden fermenters with their generations of ingrained wild yeast were replaced by stainless steel, and the souring effect is achieved in modern Guinness by injecting it with lactic acid.
Horrified by talk of “good pints” and “bad pints”, the big breweries took control of pub cellars, offering full service cleaning and maintenance of the lines and taps, eroding generations of cellarmanship wisdom among the nation’s publicans: all they have to do now is pour the beer and pay the invoices. The notion that some pubs “do a good pint” and some don’t lives on in Irish lore, but the Guinness people try not to encourage it and, of course, it’s pretty much impossible to test.
Finally, the era of consolidation coincided with the rise of lager as the drink of choice for Ireland’s young people. Two generations on, the country’s favourite individual beer is still a stout, but the assorted lager brands led by Heineken, Budweiser and Carlsberg now account for two of every three pints served. Ale, in its entirety, represents just 5% of Ireland’s beer market today.
But enough doom and gloom. In the mid-1990s Irish entrepreneurs brought an exciting new concept to Ireland from the States: the brewpub. In rural Co.Clare, Biddy Early was the first, followed a year later by The Porterhouse in the middle of Dublin, and by the turn of the millennium Kinsale had its own brewpub, Cork’s Franciscan Well was brewing and pouring on the banks of the Lee, and a second Dublin brewpub called Messrs Maguire was operating by the Liffey just downstream from The Porterhouse. Craft beer had arrived! For the first time in generations, there were Irish breweries in Irish hands.
Growth has been slow. There is simply no competing with the marketing power of Heineken and Diageo (as Guinness & Sons, still headquartered in London, is now called). The new breweries have tended to either build a strong local loyalty — Galway Hooker is what you drink in the City of the Tribes — or else work primarily for export to more receptive markets: some 70% of the Carlow Brewing Company’s output goes abroad.
Certainly there have been casualties along the way, both Kinsale and Biddy Early are now defunct, but several new breweries are opening each year, and the major cities all have at least one bar each specialising in local microbrewed beers. Most recently, handpumps serving cask ale have started to appear in pubs, where such a thing would have been unthinkable even two years ago!
Visitors to Ireland still have their work cut out if they’re looking for real Irish beer, but there are a few resources worth keeping an eye on. The excellent Beermapping.com offers directions to all the best places for quality local and imported beer in Ireland, and the nation’s beer enthusiasts maintain an exhaustive list of Irish pubs and restaurants where Irish craft beer can be found on IrishCraftBrewer.com.
As we speak, Irish Craft Brewer itself is evolving into a fully fledged campaign group to raise awareness of independent, Irish-owned, artisan (they’re all the same thing in Ireland) breweries on the island. Beoir, as the group is called, will be going live in the summer and hopes to achieve a mainstreaming of craft beer of the sort that we see with envy in countries like the US and Denmark. Coming from a point of currently having significantly less than 1% of the beer market, there is a big hill to climb with craft beer in Ireland. But we’ve got nothing to lose either.
Beers from genuine Irish breweries available outside of Ireland:
- Carlow Brewing Company (Co. Carlow): O’Hara’s Stout; O’Hara’s Red; Curim Gold
- Hilden Brewery (Co. Antrim): Molly’s Chocolate Stout; Headless Dog;
- Belfast Blonde; Cathedral Quarter; Titanic Quarter
- The Porterhouse (Dublin): Plain Porter; Wrassler’s XXXX Stout; OysterStout; Porterhouse Red; Brainblásta; Hop Head
- Whitewater Brewery (Co. Down): Belfast Black; Belfast Ale; BelfastLager; Clotworthy Dobbin
Ireland’s other independent breweries:
- Bay Brewery (Co. Galway)
- Beoir Chorca Duibhne (Co. Kerry)
- Clanconnel (Co. Down)
- Franciscan Well (Cork City)
- Galway Hooker (Co. Roscommon)
- Messrs Maguire (Dublin City)
- White Gypsy (Co. Tipperary)
- Dungarvan Brewing Company (Co. Waterford)