Franciscan Well was founded in 1998 just two years after the Irish beer revival had been kick-started in Dublin by a pugnacious entrepreneur called Oliver Hughes. He started with a small brewpub, The Porterhouse in Temple Bar, and its success has spiralled into a small chain that encompasses three Porterhouse bars in the Irish capital supplied by a custom-built brewery, and one in London’s Covent Garden area. More recently Hughes has bought Fraunce’s Tavern in New York City, the oldest building in Manhattan where General George Washington bade farewell to his troops following the defeat of the British in the War of Independence. It’s a detail of history that’s not lost on an Irishman, Hughes says. Fraunce’s now offers Porterhouse beers from Dublin while the restaurant’s speciality, naturally, is porterhouse steak.
The Porterhouse bars in Dublin built their reputation on porter and stout, brewed to restore flavor to a style that had been diminished, Hughes believes, at their hands of the bigger Irish brewers. His range includes Plain Porter, Oyster Stout and Wrasslers XXXX. He has added several lagers, including Hersbrucker and Temple Brau, Porterhouse Red, and a strong 7% ale called An Brain Blásta. For his London bar, Hughes added a cask-conditioned ale, TSB, and both Dublin and London now offer a stunningly bitter cask pale ale, Hop Head (4.7%), brewed with pale ale malt and hopped with American Cascades and German Hallertau varieties.
Hughes worked in Britain for a while in the 1980s and witnessed the cask beer boom created by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale. CAMRA’s success inspired him to open his first Porterhouse and to create an interest in craft beer, including cask ale, which disappeared from Ireland in the 1960s when Guinness and Murphy moved to “mixed gas dispense”, filtered beer served by carbon dioxide and nitrogen from kegs. But cask beer is staging a comeback, albeit in small volumes. At Franciscan Well, for example, some of the beers are served from both keg and cask, leaving the choice to the consumer.
Carlow Brewing in County Carlow has scored great success at home and abroad. The company was founded by the O’Hara family in the 1990s and moved to new premises in 2009 to keep up with the international demand for its beer. Seamus O’Hara exports 60% of his 15,000 hectoliter annual production to 20 countries, including the U.S., Italy, France, Sweden and Britain. The beers, all branded O’Hara’s, include two stouts, pale and red ales, and a golden wheat beer, available in cask, keg and bottle.
O’Hara and his brewer Cieran Kelly use Irish-grown barley with specialist grains—caramalt, chocolate and roasted barley—imported from England. Hops are sourced from England, the Czech Republic and the U.S. Hops have not been grown in Ireland since the 1970s.
The stand-out Carlow beers include Irish Red, with smoked malt, sultana fruit and bitter hop on nose and palate; a stout with a rich roasted grain and chocolate character; and a pale ale, hopped with American Amarillo and Cascade varieties that deliver a big punch of bittersweet grapefruit. Leánn Fóllain (Wholesome Stout) is a strong, 6% beer brewed to celebrate the brewery’s first 10 years and it has a big creamy malt aroma, with espresso coffee, dark berry fruit and tangy hop resins.
The Metalman Brewery in Waterford, run by Gráinne Walsh and Tim Barber, is a more recent arrival on the brewing scene. It opened in 2011, moved to new premises in 2012 and plans to expand further still. Walsh and Barber describe the demand for craft beer as “fantastic.” As a result of the iron grip of the big two Irish brewers, Metalman, in common with most craft producers, sells beer to specialist bars, stores and restaurants. The brewery’s name comes from giant navigational markers in the River Suir dubbed the Metalmen: they were erected in the 19th century to prevent shipping accidents and insurance claims.
Most of the brewery’s production is in keg form but Walsh and Barber produce some cask beer and they plan to bottle. Their main beer is Pale Ale, brewed with Maris Otter pale barley malt imported from England, augmented by caramalt, crystal and lager malts. The hops are Cascade, Magnum and Summit. The beer bursts with bitter hop resins, biscuit malt and tart citrus fruit. Moonbeam, a dark ale brewed with pale, amber, crystal and lager malts and hopped with Green Bullet, Nugget and Pacific Gem, has an aroma and palate rich with smoked and roasted grain, with dark berry fruits, hop resins and an espresso coffee note. Seasonal beers include Windjammer Amber Ale that heralds the arrival of the Tall Ships for an annual sailing festival in Waterford harbour.