Over here, we tend to think of brewing in Ireland as being dominated by one very big brewing company and two smaller ones. Tell me about the rise of craft brewing culture there.
These days, it’s really one big company and one smaller one, Diageo and Heineken. Craft brewing really took off in Ireland in the early or mid-nineties. Most of the inspiration came from the U.S. People like Seamus O’Hara [founder of Carlow’s] had traveled in America, and tried beers over there and thought, well, why can’t we do that in Ireland? There used to be a time in Ireland when every town and village had a brewery. When you go to towns like Carlow, you see names like Brewery Lane and Malt House Street, so what they were trying to do was revive the tradition of brewing that had existed in Ireland up to maybe the 1950s.
How was that tradition lost?
I think it was consolidation under the big guys, when they bought up smaller breweries and centralized production in the big cities. And there were a couple of world wars that didn’t help matters.
What’s happened since the nineties?
There have been various craft breweries that have opened, some have closed and some have done well. It’s been a slower process than many of the people who got in originally thought it would be. But Ireland became a really wealthy country in the nineties, and people started to travel a lot―not just the young people, but everybody. When people traveled, they saw the variety that was available abroad, in the U.S. and the U.K., in Germany, and the quality that was available as well.
They started to demand that when they came home. The import market became strong, and on the back of that market, the craft brew market began to rise as well.
How many craft breweries are there now in Ireland?
I think in total there are about seven or eight, with a couple others in the pipeline . We’re the biggest. There are a number of small ones opening and closing. Most are in the big cities, some in Dublin, some in Cork, the rest scattered around.
Was it a challenge for Carlow to win an audience?
More so in the beginning, before I started with the company. There had been a perception that a small brewery couldn’t be very good quality, that these guys were crazy. It took a few years to change that. Then the stout won a huge award in 2000: beer of the millennium at the International Brewing Awards. When that happened, people sat up and took notice.
A lot of drinkers in Ireland would have been pretty conservative when the brewery opened, but now lots of them are educating themselves. There are online communities where people talk about beer. Shops and pubs are stocking a wider range, so it’s an up-and-coming thing.
Carlow Brewing is one of the oldest of these new breweries, isn’t it?
Yeah, we’re almost 12 years old, and we’ve just moved to a new production facility where we’ve quadrupled our capacity. Two years ago, we celebrated ten years by bringing out our Celebration Stout in a 750 ml bottle, which did well in the States, actually. And we’ve got a spin-off from that, a new product with an Irish name, Leann Folláin, which is a 6 percent stout. It means “wholesome ale” in Irish, so we thought that might be a good name for a naturally brewed Irish stout. It’s currently available only in Europe, but we’re hoping to expand that.
How many O’Hara beers are there?
Currently we have five core brands. We do a beer for Marks and Spencer’s supermarket in the U.K. It’s another Irish stout, and it’s been very popular. We’re currently working on some new beers, taking steps to introduce cask beer to the Irish market, and we’ve created an IPA recently.
Is that one of the only IPAs in Ireland?
There are a couple of others, but I think this is the only one on cask.
What’s your brewing background?
Originally I studied biotechnology. I always had an interest in brewing, but I got into studying biotechnology in Ireland, because at the time there were no brewing courses here. Then I worked for Dublin Brewing Co., which has since closed, unfortunately. After that, I studied for a masters in brewing and distilling at Heriot Watt in Edinburgh. I came to Carlow in 2006.
In contrast to mainstream stouts, how do yours stand out?
We’re using all natural ingredients―grain, water, hops and yeast―in the production of the beer. We go for a full-bodied flavor. I think the larger breweries, because of the need to drive volume at all costs, tend to substitute flavors so it’s more widely appealing, whereas we’re looking for a discerning drinker who’s interested in having their taste buds challenged. All our beers are big on flavor, particularly our stout, which is very roasty.
Is it stronger in alcohol?
No, there’s a tradition of session beer in Ireland, so our O’Hara’s Stout is only about 4.3 percent. It’s a good session beer, so you can have a few of them over a night of chat and laughter in the pub.
Is it nitrogenated?
On draft it’s nitrogenated. In Ireland, people expect stout to be nitrogenated; they expect that smooth texture. You need to give the customer what he wants to some extent. But in the bottle, it’s carbonated: the mechanics of nitrogenating in the bottle are beyond us at the moment.
Funny, because the nitrogen pour isn’t that old―only since the sixties―but now it’s the classic.
It’s become a classic. But the reason for the nitrogen pour was to emulate cask beer when kegs came into fashion. Cask beer was naturally carbonated, so it would have been a little bit flatter than keg beer. So to bring the smoothness back to the beer―and smoothness is very important to stout―they came up with nitrogenation. Now it’s come into its own: it’s become hugely popular. People travel to Ireland to drink nitrogen-poured beer.
Are you dabbling with seasonal beers at all?
Yes, we like to experiment as much as possible. It hasn’t always been easy, because we’ve been brewing at capacity at Carlow for the past couple of years. We have the IPA coming out, which hopefully will be ready by St. Patrick’s Day. We have the possibility of doing another couple of beers that I can’t talk too much about at the moment.
Well, let’s hope they make it to the States.
Well, I think you will. We have very good distributors in the U.S. with Distinguished Brands; the coverage we get is fantastic. It’s good to travel to America and actually see your beer on the shelves over there.
So you’ve been over here?
Yes, I was in Chicago. I was there for St. Patrick’s Day in 2007. It’s quite a blast, compared with St. Patrick’s Day over here. It’s completely different―bigger and better. I had a very good week that weekend.
We marched in the parade as the O’Hara’s. A lot of O’Hara’s from across the U.S. converged for the parade―it was great.
What do you do when you’re not brewing?
I’m obsessed with brewing, but I’m also a bit of a rugby nut. And I try to play golf, much to the embarrassment of the people I play with.
Is there any music in the brew house?
No, you’re either on the phone or working the equipment. But if there was music, it would be David Bowie.