I went to Ireland and checked in on the state of craft beer. (I suffer so for my art.)
I simply had to go to Dublin this summer. The European Beer Bloggers Conference was there, and it was a good excuse to go to Ireland, not that I really needed one. Last summer we were in Connemara, and briefly in a Gaeltacht region in northern Ireland on our way to a ferry to Scotland. This year was County Kerry, Dublin and some areas nearby. The difference in craft beer in Ireland between last year and this year is striking. Here are my observations on the state of craft beer in Ireland from a couple of weeks ago.
Just to be clear, my experiences and observations pertain to the Republic of Ireland. There is an open border with Northern Ireland, but they have different money, governance, and laws. I hear they have a craft scene worth noting, but I didn’t spend any time there this summer and only a couple of days last year, so I’m not going to try to speak for what’s going on up there. When I talk of “Ireland”, I mean the Republic.
Ireland is the home of three major brands of porter and stout: Guinness, of course; Beamish; and Murphy’s. I am going to assume you’re familiar with the iconic Guinness line, which includes Guinness Extra Stout, Foreign Extra, Harp, Red Stripe, now Smithwick’s, and others. Guinness is a Force For Good for those who love a stout. Beamish and Murphy’s, being much smaller breweries, are a bit more regional. I really like Beamish, but had to wait until my last night in Ireland to find some, at the Creamery Cafe in Ballycastle (across the road from the original Dürty Nelly’s, not too far from Shannon airport, sigh). County Kerry is Murphy’s stout country, bordering on Beamish territory. Guinness is of course everywhere. Slightly smaller regional brands like Kilkenny (now owned by the group that owns Guinness) are well established.
Murphy’s makes a stout and a red ale. They are now owned by Heineken, and distributed in the U.S. Their website is currently under construction but I linked it here in case you get luckier than I did accessing it.
Beamish just makes their stout, but it might be my favorite of the Big Three. Their website works just fine.
The big difference between the craft beer movement in the U.S. and Ireland is that the major brands in Ireland are really very good – and there’s reasonable variety. There just aren’t a lot of choices, and it is possible (if you are of adventurous mind and you try) to get bored. The major brands do what they do very well. In Ireland there’s not the hint of rebellion there is in the U.S., the we’re-not-gonna-take-it-any-more air. There’s just a burst of creativity. The Irish are very, very good at fundamental creativity.
If you want to order a pint of Guinness in Ireland, you ask for a pint of the plain. That is, unless you’re in the somewhat famous Porterhouse Brewing Co. pub in the Temple Bar district of Dublin, or anywhere that serves their beer. They rather cheekily call their porter “Porterhouse Plain Porter”. In a Porterhouse pub a pint of the plain will get you something delicious that is not Guinness. Porterhouse was one of the earlier craft breweries in Ireland; they started in the late ’80s and opened the Temple Bar pub
back in 1996. They’re based in County Wicklow, and have pubs in Dublin, London, and New York, so it’s possible to get your pint of the Porterhouse plain there.
The Irish are famously brand-loyal. I suppose they’ve had plenty of uncertainty in their history, and cling to a few “friends” they can trust. So it impressed me that craft beers, which are by nature a bit experimental most of the time, were making inroads everywhere we went. ‘Everywhere’ included some very rural and even remote areas of the country. Some of our “on the ground” Irish bloggers said that the craft beer movement in Ireland has really blossomed in the last four years, but when we were there just a year ago we saw none of it unless we intentionally searched. Now craft beer can be found in the most remote corners of the country. It’s damn good beer, too.
What’s the definition of a craft brewer in either location, the U.S. or Ireland? In the U.S., the Brewer’s Association, advocacy group for professional craft brewers, defines craft as being small, independent, and traditional. From their website:
Craft brewers are small brewers.
The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.
Craft beer is generally made with traditional ingredients like malted barley; interesting and sometimes non-traditional ingredients are often added for distinctiveness.
Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism and sponsorship of events.
Craft brewers have distinctive, individualistic approaches to connecting with their customers.
Craft brewers maintain integrity by what they brew and their general independence, free from a substantial interest by a non-craft brewer.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Beoir.org defines their mission thus: “Beoir is an independent group of consumers which seeks greater choice, quality and value-for-money for beer and cider drinkers on the island of Ireland. Our primary goal is to support and raise awareness of Ireland’s native independent microbreweries and craft cider-makers…Additionally, Beoir promotes and encourages amateur craft brewing, and the making of other fermented beverages. It seeks to assist amateur brewers in improving the quality of their end product through the sharing of information.” Sort of a combined Irish Brewers Association and American Homebrewers Association, like back when the url was Beertown. Look for the Beoir.org sticker in pub windows, it’s a quick way to know if they serve craft beer.
Notice there is less stress on innovation in the Irish vs. U.S. manifestos. No question, I saw some experimentation going on, but nothing like the over-the-top hopping or wild ingredient chases you see in the U.S. On the other hand, they don’t have to work as hard to distinguish themselves in Ireland. They’re not Guinness, Beamish, or Murphy’s, and that’s plenty of distinction right there. It’s nice to be able to try a pretty classic brew that you haven’t had before. Craft beer in Ireland doesn’t automatically mean wild and crazy, but there’s enough experimentation going to to keep it interesting.
Beoir.org is “a proud member of the EBCU: European Beer Consumers Union.” Imagine working with a European advocacy group for beer lovers! Among other things, they support traditional brewing and “campaign against any activities likely to lead to the further concentration of control…”. There are European beers I really love, so I’m particularly pleased to know the EBCU is out there.
I’d like to take a moment to give a shout-out to some beers I had for the first time on this trip that I particularly enjoyed – remember I like my beer brunette. O’Hara’s Celtic Stout is a many-time-over award winner for a reason. N17’s Oatmeal Stout was superbly balanced, dry with a lingering hop finish, and it has a story I’m going to have to tell you soon. Trouble Brewing’s Dark Arts Porter was a rich and
malty classic. But the really intriguing one was a beer we had at 10:30 at night after a smashing trad concert when we still had a couple of hours to drive home. We nipped into a little pub in Dingle and found Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne West Kerry Brewery‘s Carraig Dubh (Beoir Chorca Dhiubhne is Irish translating to something like “West Peninsula Beer” more or less; Chorca Dhuibne is the name for the place we call Dingle in English. One of those times when name anglicization didn’t work very well). This brewery is so tiny, not only will you not find them in the U.S., I’m not sure you’ll get them in Dublin. I found one off-license that had their ale. So here we are, it’s very late and we’re very tired after a day of exploring, hiking a mountain pass and whatnot. We’re slowly sipping our beers before setting off on the long road home, and it slowly occurs to us we’re tasting something pretty spectacular. It’s a rich, malty, cask-conditioned chocolate porter. I kept an eye out for West Kerry through the rest of our trip, but didn’t manage to find Chorca Dhuibhne Carraig Dubh again. It’s my “mystery lady glimpsed in a crowd” beer.
There are several more established “alternative” beer brands that started back in the ’90s – for example, O’Hara’s, from Carlow Brewing (1996). Seamus O’Hara himself was on tap at the bloggers’ conference, as Carlow sponsored our last evening’s party. Carlow is in the Barrow Valley in Ireland’s Midlands, prime hop-growing farmland. Franciscan Well is another one, and in the interest of full disclosure they gave us a beautiful meal Saturday night with multiple pairings (more on that later). They’re sort of the Irish version of Sam Adams or Fat Tire – been around for quite a while, pretty well established, big enough that you second-guess whether they’re really craft or not. They are. Definitely craft brewers. (In my opinion, O’Hara’s has the most beautiful and most Irish beer labels and taps I’ve yet seen; they have the feel of new-and-really-old-Ireland. Their t-shirts are handsome but quite plain.)
Once we got to the conference and started talking beer for real, the first thing I had to do was adjust to the scale. I am an American blogger. The US has 313 million people as of the 2010 census. Last year we had about 750 new craft breweries open, and are expecting a higher number of newbies this year. According to the Brewer’s Association, between microbreweries, brewpubs, and regional breweries, there are something like 2,700 craft beer producing companies in the U.S. now. Rounding up, that’s a craft-producer for every 115,926 people*. They’re popping up like mushrooms, and the numbers just keeps getting bigger**. In Ireland, it also feels
like they’re popping up like mushrooms – but Beoir.org lists only 39 of them. Mental reset: the Republic of Ireland has 4.6 million people. That’s Louisiana, or Kentucky, or South Carolina. They’re still catching up from the Famine and great emigration a century and a half ago, which dropped their population by somewhere between a full third and a half. Still, there’s a craft-producer for ever 117,949 people (rounding up), so proportionately they’re pretty much right where we are. In both places, new craft breweries are opening so fast it’s hard to keep up.
**If I had realized, back when I was looking at grad schools, that you could be an economist monitoring beer industry trends, I’d have gotten my degree in economics in a flash. Oh for missed opportunities!
***Population numbers include minors and people who don’t drink beer. This ain’t exactly scientific.
As you’ve probably guessed, I prefer porters and stouts, but there are plenty of good lagers and ales available. Nearly forty craft breweries can produce a lot of beers.
I noticed how many young Americans are in Ireland working for craft beer. Not quite an invasion but a definite contingent.
Craft brewpubs are popping up, too, though most still carry at least one of the Big Three (Guinness, Beamish, or Murphy’s, or did you miss that bit?). Almost everyone carries at least one hard cider, and often enough it’s a recognizable brand. I had several Bulmer’s when I tired of stout and there wasn’t any craft around (it happens, even to me). There’s even a dedicated craft beer distributor called Vanguard, bent on bringing craft into every pub. They carry both beer and cider, and would be glad to convert your whole pub to craft should you be so inclined. Vanguard offers beer appreciation courses, and smaller 30 litre (9+ gallon) disposable, recyclable kegs that makes it easier to fit them in the cramped spaces behind pub bars. They’re doing what they can to spread the word of Craft.
I visited one bespoke pub, though there are a few others: Brewery Corner in Kilkenny is a dedicated Carlow brewpub, so they have O’Hara beers and more – they’re all craft all the time. Carlow is understandably proud of this pub. They keep thirteen craft beers on tap, and often have cask conditioned local beers. I hear there’s a bottle cellar with craft beers from Germany, Belgium and the U.S.
They don’t have TV, a growing trend in Irish pubs, but they do have a wall of games, comfortable tables, great beer and homemade pizza. When they say they have the friendliest staff, they’re really not kidding. In a country where I generally found everyone quite pleasant, even people in harassing jobs like hotel desk clerk and retail, the guy behind the bar at Brewery Corner was a gem. Cute, too. A few days after having a pint at Brewery Corner I met Seamus O’Hara himself at the beer bloggers conference. I mentioned I’d been to Brewery Corner, and the man’s face just lit up.
Brewery Corner had two awards on their shelves. There is a fancy crystal bowl for having the best store front, from Tidy Towns. That’s right, there’s a national organization to keep Ireland tidy, and it works. The streets are clean, even the rather sketchy back alley in Dublin where I found a cable for my tablet.
The real humdinger is a quietly framed piece of paper on the wall across from the bar. It’s the Craft Beer Bar of the Year award. If I recall, the pub
hadn’t been open six months when they won it: “The Licensing World Bar of the Year Awards, sponsored by Classic Drinks and Failte Ireland, saw licensed trade professionals from across the country representing highly reputable bars, hotels, music venues and nightclubs…celebrate and acknowledge the outstanding achievements of their colleagues and peers”.
Which brings me to the state of beer competitions. They’re thriving. In the U.S., breweries get a lot of mileage out of winning medals at the big craft beer competitions such as the Great American Beer Festival, U.S. Open Beer Competition, and a heaping helping of state and regional competitions. In Europe it’s much the same. There are the International Brewing Industry Awards, Alltech Beer Awards, etc., etc. They’re using the competitions to gain credibility and visibility just as U.S. craft brewers do.
I haven’t delved deeply into the homebrew scene – fodder for future research – but I did (quite by accident unless Reuben Gray had something to do with it) run into the Dublin Beer Ladies, who were having a meeting in a pub we crawled. Was it Porterhouse? Sweetman’s? I’m not 100% sure now, and for that I really can blame Reuben. I was very happy to meet a women’s brewing group in Ireland like our local Baltimore Babes and HOPS back home. I noticed how relieved I was that their name didn’t spell anything (enough with acrostic already) and wasn’t a bad pun, like so many of ours. (My own local homebrew club has a name I don’t really want to wear on a t-shirt, though I really like the group. Get a grip, people.) I was chatted up by Mia Tobin, who’s offering microbrewery tours of Ireland. It’s not a huge country, you could cover quite a lot of ground on a beer tour. Yay for beer tourism! I didn’t get to talk to many of the women there that night – they were trying to have a meeting and there were lots of us, and we were on a mission to crawl.
If you go to Ireland, there is one thing you must take with you if at all possible (besides a rain jacket and extra socks). If you have a smart phone and can get a data plan for overseas – and most phone companies will let you arrange a short-term data plan – get thee the Beoirfinder app. It’s on both iTunes and Google Play (on Twitter: @BeoirFinder). Use it to find the nearest craft beer, or to track down that special one. I used it to try to find West Kerry’s beers in Dublin (and that finding Carraig Dubh wasn’t likely). It showed me where to look so I didn’t run all over the city fruitlessly. It tracks brewers, cider-makers, pubs & bars, off-licenses and restaurants. It is an invaluable beer tool for the Irish craft-loving traveller.
Two themes we heard over and over in the pubs: the fees to have a TV in a pub are very high, so they’re being taken out. Also, there is a lot of soul-searching going on now that the Irish boom times have faded. Pubs used to be a place people gathered and shared news, but morphed into a place you went (still with friends) to watch a game on the telly and didn’t talk together much. There is a move to take the TVs out and return the pub to a gathering place with friends.
There are still plenty of pubs with TVs. At this stage taking TVs out of pubs is still a trend to watch. It says something about the national character that , while you mostly see Gaelic Football on TV in a pub, the World Cup was on everywhere even though Ireland wasn’t in it.
If you prefer to drink your craft beer at home, and you want to buy beer in Ireland, look for the “Off-License” sign. That means they’re licensed to have alcohol on premise, which may only be consumed off-premise. An off-license is essentially the same thing as a liquor store. It’s unusual to find a store that only sells one sort of product in Ireland, so you find some amusing combinations. Whatever works, right? Most groceries and many petrol stations have off-license. In the U.S., where you can buy which kinds of alcohol depends entirely on which state and what local laws you’re dealing with. It is much less complicated in Ireland.