In Ireland, history catches you by the coattails at every turn. Towns, cities and countryside reflect centuries of invasion, foreign domination and massacre, the unbearable horror of the Great Hunger of the 19th century, and the long and bloody struggle for Home Rule in the 20th.
Irish beer reflects that history. When the British exported London-brewed porter and stout to the Irish part of the United Kingdom, brewers—notably Arthur Guinness in Dublin—accepted the challenge and turned the black beer into a proud flag-bearer of their fight for nationhood, eclipsing the British original.
Stout was followed by red ale, an Irish interpretation of English pale ale with more color in its cheeks. The very name speaks of rebellion and defiance, and that defiance is burned into the buildings and memory of Ireland’s second city, Cork. It’s called “Rebel City” and the beers from the local craft brewery reflect Cork’s role in the battle for independence from Britain, which responded by allowing its Black and Tan militia to raze the city centre to the ground.
Franciscan Well brews both a Rebel Red Ale and a Red Lager that would have surely met with the approval of Michael Collins, one of the key figures in the Home Rule movement. His base was Cork and he was known to enjoy a glass of beer. But, as the name suggests, the brewery predates the events of the 1920s by several centuries. It stands on the site of a monastery built by Franciscan monks in 1216, and they used the supply of pure water from a well to fashion ale for themselves and pilgrims.
The brewery and pub on the North Wall area of Cork is wonderfully atmospheric. From the street, you walk down a long corridor framed by ancient curved brick walls. You turn right into the dimly-lit cavernous main bar where the beers are served. Beyond are more spacious rooms and a garden area, while to the right is the large brew house where brewer Peter Lyall and his staff work their magic with malt and hops on the 11.5 hectoliter kit. The monks’ well can be seen but has dried up: Lyall uses the public water supply.
As well as red ale and lager, Lyall produces two beers that reflect the site’s ancient origins: Friary Weisse wheat beer and Purgatory Pale Ale. His stout is called Shandon, named after a district in Cork, and it has a superb aroma and palate of chocolate, coffee, roasted grain and spicy hops. Rebel Red accounts for 40% of the brewery’s output and is brewed with a substantial amount of crystal malt and roasted barley alongside pale malt. To prove that old antagonisms are on the wane, Lyall uses two English hops in the beer, East Kent Goldings and Fuggles. The beer is a classic of the style with caramel, roasted grain, orange fruit and grassy hops on the nose and palate.
As well as supplying beer to bars and restaurants in Cork city and the surrounding area, Franciscan Well plays host to an annual gathering of all Ireland’s growing number of craft breweries. There are now more than 20 breweries in Ireland, the north as well as the republic, and they have restored both choice and diversity of styles to an island dominated for years by the two giants, Guinness and Murphy’s. Guinness is now part of the global Diageo wine and spirits group while Murphy’s is owned by Heineken. Their sales are scarcely dented by the arrival of the small craft brewers but it must give Diageo and Heineken cause for concern that the new wave beers find favour with a young generation that, while proud to be Irish, has a modern European outlook demanding greater choice. Diageo has an additional problem: its head office is in London. One drinker in a bar said to me: “Guinness is a British company now” and that doesn’t play well in its country of origin.