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.
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.
The Dungarvan Brewing Company underscores the rapid changes taking place in Irish brewing. It’s run by two couples, Cormac and Jen O’Dwyer and Claire and Tom Dalton. They opened the brewery in 2010 and they produce most of their beer in bottle-conditioned form for restaurants and bars. In a country dominated by filtered, pasteurized and carbonated beers, this is revolutionary stuff. Spurred on by the success of their venture, the couples now plan to expand into cask ale production. The three main beers are Helvic Gold, Copper Coast and Black Rock. The bottles are filled straight from the fermenters and warm conditioned to allow the yeast to start working again to create a natural carbonation. The beers are finally cool conditioned for four to six weeks before they leave the brewery.
Helvic Gold is a pale bronze beer brewed with Maris Otter pale and a dash of Munich malt. Whole flower hops are Goldings and Northern Brewer with Cascade used as a late finishing hop in the kettle. The beer has a luscious citrus character with a fresh herbal note and spicy hop resins. Copper Coast is a red ale that commemorates the old copper mining industry in the area. It has a delicious rich barley sweetness with light spicy hops and sultana fruit. Black Rock is a superb example of an Irish stout, brewed with pale malt, roasted and flaked barley and hopped with Northern Brewer. The complex aroma and palate offer black coffee, an astringent note from the roasted grain and a delicious hint of licorice.
The Irish brewing revival is attracting brewers from overseas, keen to build a niche in the market. Eight Degrees Brewing in Mitchelstown is not only full of the usual clatter of brewing but the loud and sometimes raucous laughter of the owners, Cameron Wallace and Scott Baigent. Wallace is from Australia while Baigent hails from New Zealand. They both married Irish women and moved to the Northern Hemisphere. Keen homebrewers back home, they honed their skills at the world-famous VLB brewing school in Berlin.
Aussies and Kiwis are notorious for not getting along but Wallace and Baigent have developed a good working relationship with the help of their Irish colleague and ringmaster Mike Magee. Eight Degrees reflects both their preferred serving temperature for beer as well as the latitude of Mitchelstown. The brewery has a 15-barrel plant with 30 hectoliter fermenters, allowing for two brews a day. Wallace and Baigent have been brewing since 2011 and produce six beers, including Oktoberfest, Ocht (the Irish for eight), Howling Gale Ale, Sunburnt Irish Red and Knockmeal Down Porter. Production is split one-third in keg and two-thirds in bottle. Bottled beers are unfiltered: “filtration strips out aroma and flavour,” Baigent says. The draught beers have a final addition of hops in keg and all the beers are made without colorings or preservatives. They are stocked by Porterhouse in Dublin, specialist drink stores and good restaurants.
Howling Gale is brewed with pure mountain water and is a pale bronze beer rich with tart lemon fruit and lightly toasted malt. Sunburnt Irish Red is a gentle poke at Irish people who arrive Down Under with pale, alabaster skin and rapidly turn bright red in the sun. Brewed with pale, carmamalt, crystal and Munich malts and hoped with American Cascade and Pacific Gem from New Zealand, it has sultana and raisin fruit on aroma and palate, biscuit malt and gentle hop resins. Wallace and Baigent say their porter is a conscious move away from conventional Irish stouts. It’s brewed with pale malt, a large amount of chocolate malt, caramalt, roasted barley and torrefied wheat, with Admiral and Fuggles hops. It has a bitter chocolate, toffee and coffee character, with smoked grain, roasted barley and peppery hops. The brewers’ humor bubbles to the surface: on the label of the porter, the last two letters of Knockmeal are crossed through, making the beer Knockme Down Porter. Fighting talk!
Xavier Baker is another new arrival on the Irish brewing scene. Baker is from Britain and while he has a great love for the cask ales from his homeland he’s carving out a different route to market at the Dingle Brewing Company with just one beer, Tom Crean’s Premium Irish Lager. The beer is named in honor of a local hero from Kerry, Tom Crean, who took part in several Anglo-Irish expeditions to the South Pole in the early 20th century. The beer is on sale at the South Pole Inn in Annascaul, which Crean ran for many years when he retired from the navy. The lager is also available in bars and restaurants in Cork and Dublin.
Baker has an impressive 10 hecto plant in an old creamery with a water source on site. “It’s the best water in Kerry,” he says. “It’s soft to medium hard—ideal for lager brewing.” He started brewing in July 2011 on Tom Crean’s birthday. He uses 90% lager malt with caramalt and the hops are whole leaf Saaz from the Czech Republic. Primary fermentation lasts for five days and the green beer is then transferred to the lager vessels where it conditions for 30 days. The beer is not pasteurized and it has a two-week shelf life. It’s pale bronze with an aroma and flavor of toasted malt, herbal and floral malts and light citrus/lemon fruit. Baker calls it “an easy drinking lager” but that undervalues it. It’s a well-made beer, properly aged, and has a fine, fresh Saaz hop character.
The West Kerry Brewery is a short distance from Baker’s but it’s a different world. Suddenly you’re in an Irish-speaking area where the correct name for Adrienne Heslin’s tiny plant is Beoir Chorca Duibhne. Heslin opened her brewery in 2008 and she produces just 600 pints per brew. The beers are available in bottle or cask conditioned on hand pump next door in the Tig Bhric (Brick) pub or at Kane’s bar in neighboring Ballyferriter. Her cask Porter (4.2%, also bottled at 5%), is aged for six weeks and is worth making the trip to the very edge of the British Isles. It has a smoked malt, licorice, bitter chocolate, espresso and burnt fruit character with spicy hops. Her Golden Ale, in sharp contrast, is a fruit salad of a beer with grapefruit and peach on the palate, balanced by peppery hops. Cúl Dorcha is an amber ale with roasted and toasted malt, a hint of chocolate and peppery hops.
Cuilán Loughnane at White Gypsy Brewery at Templemore learned his brewing skills in Canada and opened his plant three years ago. The kit was built by the Munich brewer Paulaner for a company in Singapore and was designed to produce wheat beer. Loughnane is a passionate believer in brewing with local ingredients. He uses Irish malt and is developing his own hop field alongside, though torrential rain in 2012 ruined the crop and he currently imports Bramling Cross, Fuggles, Goldings and Northdown varieties from England.
His 10-hecto plant produces Ruby Ale, Imperial Russian Stout and a German-style strong Doppelbock lager. The stunningly complex Russian Stout (7%) is brewed with smoked malt and roasted barley alongside pale malt and is hopped with Bramling Cross and Northdown. It has a big peppery hops nose with blackcurrant fruit, bitter chocolate, espresso coffee and smoky, roasted grain on aroma and palate. He plans to add a vintage Irish stout that will be matured in oak casks and brewed with peated malt.
Loughnane sell his beers to 30 outlets in the area and, in tune with his “keep it local” outlook, he doesn’t want to go further afield.
The vibrant and dramatic revival of small-scale, independent brewing in Ireland is supported by a small but active beer drinkers’ movement called Beoir, the Irish for beer (www.beoir.org). John Duffy, the driving force of the group, says: “We’re not yet at the stage where hand-crafted beer can be found on every bar in the land, nor even in most towns yet. But, bit by bit, with support from the discerning drinkers seeking something a little better than the average, things are on the up.”