Selling in the Shadows of Giants: Craft Beer and Whiskey in Ireland
True story: A woman walks into a bar and orders a glass of Connemaragh. Now, this particular bar being an “Irish” pub (albeit one in Toronto rather than Ireland) and Connemaragh being an Irish whiskey, one might well presume that this is exactly what she would receive—especially since the spirits menu clearly lists the brand. Instead, minutes pass. Long minutes.
Nearly a quarter of an hour later, with our heroine despairing of ever receiving a drink, the waitress appears bearing…a plate of calamari. As her customer fixes the plate with a look of wild incomprehension, the fleetingly flustered server asks, “Isn’t this what you ordered?”
Such is the lot of Irish drinks producers whose products are not named Guinness or Jameson or Bushmills. Request their brands, even in a place that proudly carries them, and you are instead served squid.
Sadly, this state of affairs largely persists even in Eire itself. From Dublin to Galway, Cork to Donegal, those looking to slake their thirst with a pint of the black stuff had best get plenty used to Guinness, since finding even the Heineken-owned Murphy’s or Scottish & Newcastle’s Beamish can oft times be a challenge, and locating a tap pouring the Carlow Brewing Co.’s O’Hara is nearly impossible.
It’s better with whiskeys, since Ireland’s only independent Irish-owned distiller, Cooley, has a bit more of a presence in the country’s vast landscape of pubs. Still, spotting a bottle of the Tyrconnell Single Malt Irish Whiskey amid the sea of Paddy, Power, Jameson and Bushmills can be a truly daunting task at times.
Of course, the plus side of all of this means that the more hunting you need to do, the more pubs you need to visit. And in Ireland, regardless of where you may be or what you might drink, pub hopping is rarely, if ever, a particular hardship.
Dublin: Central City Writ Large
Every traveler’s Irish itinerary must include at least a day or two in the capital, if only because it’s home to one of the two airports in the country serving overseas flights. (Shannon on the west coast is the other, significantly less modern gateway.) And nearly every stay in Dublin begins at Temple Bar.
Set on the south bank of the River Liffy and named after the 17th century developer Sir William Temple, this arts and entertainment district is the vibrant heart of central Dublin. Like most such areas in cities around the world, it is best given a pass by travelers seeking to avoid the tourist hoards that descend upon it daily.
At least, that would be the case were it not for two very fine establishments, each a vital addition to any Dublin tour: Gallagher’s Boxty House and The Porterhouse.
Although it’s one of only a handful of places on Temple Bar that pours Murphy’s Irish Stout in place of Guinness, beer is not the reason people flock to Gallagher’s. Here, as the name suggests, the draw is the traditional Irish staple known as boxty: a surprisingly simple but nonetheless delectable dish of potato pancakes wrapped around one of an assortment of available fillings, from lamb to corned beef and cabbage. While there’s every chance that over the course of a pint or three at the pub across the road you’ll meet someone who swears his gran makes a better boxty, until Irish Tourism starts matching travelers with local grandmothers, Gallagher’s remains your best bet.
A short walk from Gallagher’s, near the very end of Temple Bar, is The Porterhouse, a once-brewpub, now-brewery-tied-house that stands as a piece of the greatest success story in the short history of Irish craft brewing.
Part of the Porterhouse’s success is without doubt attributable to its location on Temple Bar and no cover, live music policy, but credit must also be given to the pub’s very good to excellent range of beers. It’s indeed a stellar line-up, one that includes an outstanding Oyster Stout, which during my first visit in 1997 I thought the finest pint of black in all of Eire, even when Darcy’s Stout from the now-defunct Dublin Brewing was in its finest form. The Oyster is still excellent, too, even if it has lost a touch of the silky, briney character it once boasted.
While the Porterhouse is not without its lagers, including the quenching, northern German-style pilsner, Hersbrucker, the brewery’s soul is black, as in black malt. Joining the Oyster Stout in the superlative array of ebony elixirs are the mild and faintly nutty Plain Porter and the dry, full-bodied Wrasslers XXXX, a favorite of co-owner Oliver Hughes—and the kind of beer that makes one wistful for the way that other Dublin stout once tasted.
The Porterhouse having long since moved its brewery out of Temple Bar to a remote location, Dublin’s sole remaining brewpub is the Liffy-side Messrs. Maguire, housed in a former hemp dealership overlooking the O’Connell Street Bridge.
Although it had been rumored to have been experiencing brewery problems prior to my visit last summer, and was even said to have stopped brewing altogether, the taps as Messrs. Maguire were reassuringly full when finally I did stop by. On offer were eight of the house brands and a handful of guest brews, some of which presented interesting conflicts. The brewpub’s Bavarian-style Weisse, for example, caused a group near me to first split their order between the Maguire wheat and the imported Erdinger Weisse, and then transfer their allegiance en masse to the German brew. On tasting the overly sweet, rather disjointed house version the following day, I had to agree with their decision.
Far better from the Messrs. Maguire oeuvre are the Plain Porter, a 4.3-percent mahogany-hued ale with a sweetish, coffee-scented aroma and earthy, mocha-ish body; and Rusty, an admittedly less characterful red ale with a sweet and fruity front leading to a drier, earthy body and finish.
Elsewhere in Dublin, the landscape is marked by sign after sign advertising the capital’s most famous corporate resident, Guinness, and taps pouring the same. Fortunately, the remarkable selection of pubs scattered on seemingly every street corner around town more than makes up for the beery monotony, from the opulence of The Stag’s Head to the legendary craic of O’Donoghue’s to the history of The Brazen Head, Dublin’s oldest pub.
Beyond the Capital
Although Dublin is home to an astounding one-third of the population of Ireland, it boasts a mere 9 percent of the country’s pubs. For the committed pub explorer, then, a trip or two outside of the capital is essential. A good first stop is Dundalk, a short drive north of Dublin and the site of both a landmark pub and the country’s only Irish-owned distillery.
The Beerkeeper, an intimate pub in Dundalk proper, is at four years of age, perhaps a bit young to merit the descriptor of “landmark,” but then again, in the bar business, you hardly have to be old to be a ground-breaker. Which is exactly what The Beerkeeper is, having revolutionized the Irish pub concept by stocking a full complement of domestic and imported craft brewed beers, and at the same time, eschewing Guinness completely! It’s a concept that appears to be catching on, albeit slowly, with newer specialist pubs like Galway’s Bier Haus perhaps hardened in their craft beer resolve by news of the Beerkeeper’s impressive popularity.
Just a short way up the road in Rivertown, another revolution of a sort is going on at the Cooley Distillery. Housed in a former government-owned fuel alcohol factory and just a shade over a decade and a half old, Cooley is putting lie to many of the old assumptions about Irish whiskey, like the notions that they should be simple in flavor, distilled three times and made from unpeated malt.
(Given that there still exist farmhouses in Eire that are warmed by peat fires, the fuel for which is abundant on the island, the idea that Irish whiskeys should be unpeated has always struck me as odd and, perhaps, based less in tradition and more in a desire to differentiate from the Scots.)
Cooley crafts eight lines of whiskeys, from the unusual, green appley, single grain Greenore, available almost exclusively in Ireland, to the sweetly complex single malt Tyrconnell and the fully peated Connemarra Single Malt, 12 Year Old and Cask Strength brands. Even a cursory sampling through the range—which is not possible in Dundalk, but is at the company’s showpiece Locke’s Distillery Museum at Kilbeggan—should be enough to convince the most ardent skeptic that the breadth of flavors available in Irish whiskeys ventures well beyond the relative simplicities of the big brands.
Even though Cooley is but a fraction of the size of Pernod Ricard’s Irish Distillers in the south and the Diageo-owned Bushmills in the north, a surprising number of pubs will still stock at least one of their line, especially in the northeast. Pity the same can’t be said about the country’s small brewers. For them, taps are few and far between and success, in the words of Carlow Brewing’s Seamus O’Hara, lies wherever they can get their name in front of the customer’s eyes.
“Most people who walk into an Irish pub already know what they’re going to drink,” says O’Hara, before going on to describe a friend of his who drank Guinness in the pub for weeks before realizing that O’Hara’s Irish Stout was also on offer. “At a restaurant where our brand will be listed on the drinks menu,” he continues, “There is more of a chance that they’ll give us a go before automatically settling on their usual.”
O’Hara might well have added that the intransigence of the Irish pub goer is nothing compared to that of some Irish publicans. Particularly for those in charge of the more traditional pubs, change is tantamount to blasphemy. Take the town of Leighlinbridge, for example, right in Carlow Brewing’s back yard. There, the recently renovated and expanding Lord Bagenal Inn is only too happy to pour the firmly malty, rounded and roasty O’Hara’s and Carlow’s toffee-ish, raisiny Moling’s Ale, sold in export markets as O’Hara’s Irish Red. But around the corner at O Braonain, an Irish-named pub so steeped in tradition that it still does double duty as pub and grocery (as once did so many Irish pubs), it’s strictly Guinness three ways—on draft and in the bottle from the fridge or shelf.
It’s the same for the resilient Franciscan Well Brewery, caught between not one, but two giants in the southern city of Cork. Despite having set up in the home town of both Murphy’s and Beamish, the pub and brewery has for about seven years managed to keep a reported dozen or so outlets pouring their properly bitter Shandon Stout and nutty Rebel Red Ale. Were it not for their own successful and highly-lauded Franciscan Well Brewery Bar, however, Franciscan’s story might well have been a much more abbreviated tale.
Indeed, for most Irish craft breweries, having a pub of their own seems to be the key—even Carlow Brewing is petitioning to be allowed to serve ale on its brewery premises. And nowhere is this more in evidence that at the Republic’s original brewpub, Biddy Early.
With its crossroads location on highway N85 between the town of Ennis and the coast, from a distance Biddy Early resembles more a truck stop than a brewpub. But misconceptions vanish quickly as you approach, and by the time you reach the parking lot, there is little doubt that the barn-like building is more about ebony stout than ham and eggs.
Named after the protagonist in a local legend, the complete story of which is too lengthy to recount here (but is available in full on the brewery’s website), Biddy Early is a spacious, decade-old pub with four beers, including a seasonal, and a lot of heart. Family-owned and operated, the brewpub has gone through many phases in its life, including at one point shipping kegs to the United States. Owner-brewer Niall Garvey says he’s happy now to have Biddy’s very roasty, faintly peppery Black Biddy and deliciously herbaceous Red Biddy served only locally, although he will not rule out some future expansion within Ireland.
And until he can guarantee that a request for his ales won’t result in a plate of seafood, perhaps that truly is the best approach to take—for him and for all of Ireland’s small but plucky brewers and distillers.
Author of five books on beer and a leader in educating bar and restaurant staff on beer, Stephen Beaumont is also the co-owner of downtown Toronto's beer cuisine restaurant and bar, beerbistro.