Wet and Wild Times for Irish Craft Beer
By Tony Forder, email@example.com
There may be better times to visit Ireland, but at least in February you’re mostly clear of the tourists, except in Dublin that is. You’ll never be clear of the tourists there, but that’s OK, it’s what keeps the city humming. It’s cold and wet and windy (in the summer it’s still wet, but warmer); we were treated to storms both weekends we were there, and on one day during the week driving around County Kilkenny, we saw rain, hail, sleet, snow and sun in the space of an hour. “That’s Ireland,” one guy told us. “Great people, shyte weather.”
Still we found many bright spots on the craft beer trail. And the people are great.
I had been recruited by Jeannine Marois, President of Montreal’s Mondial de la Biere Festival (with whom I’ve worked for many years) to map out an itinerary with a view to recruiting breweries for their 2021 festival – and to do the driving. As a UK native they figured I could handle the roads ‘n all. As for the breweries, this is how the Mondial works – they like to go to the source.
We couldn’t do it all. I picked a southern route. Dublin-Wicklow–Waterford-Cork-Killarney-Dingle-Galway-Dublin. We didn’t keep precisely to that plan, but it was a good template.
Fittingly we started with Peter Mosley, the brains behind Ireland’s first brewpub, The Porterhouse, which began in 1996. Mosley, a Brit, was hired by founders, the late Oliver Hughes and Liam LaHart to set up the original brewhouse; he still runs their third (100-Hl) brewery incarnation which came on line in 2018 and which supplies all their outlets including their two pubs in Dublin, one in London and two in New York
Porterhouse Master Brewer Peter Mosley at the Dublin brewery.
Peter is one of the nicest gents you’ll meet. He welcomed us at the brewery with a pint of Plain Porter after our overnight flight, one of the most memorable I had – great mouthfeel, more like a stout, a 3-D Guinness if you like. Still independent, Porterhouse has survived by diversifying. They own a distributorship which includes such brands as Sierra Nevada; they own a distillery in Dingle; and a small chain of tapas bars. Their 3-floor brewpub still operates in Dublin’s heart – Temple Bar – with a long line of taps (including their famed Oyster Stout), food and lots of live music.
Mosley describes the ebb and flow of Irish craft beer. Soon after Porterhouse, O’Hara’s debuted in Carlow and is now the largest craft brewery in Ireland, pumping out about 35,000 hectos annually with flagships Irish Red and Stout, but brewing a vast variety of styles, not to mention a couple of brands of cider. In 2018, owner Seamus O’Hara took on a 30% investment from Spanish independent Estrella Galicia, not to be confused with the popular Estrella Damm beer of Barcelona.
In 1998 Shane Long opened Cork’s first brewpub, Franciscan Well. One of its first brewers was Russell Garret who came over from Chelsea Brewing Co. in Manhattan. Long still owns his Franciscan Well brewpub but he and his original partner sold the brands to Coors (now Molson-Coors) in 2014. Coors invested in a new brewery in a spacious warehouse (former Ford Motor plant) on the banks of the River Lee in Cork. The brands benefit from Coors distribution network in Ireland, and particularly in London where they are going great guns.
Thanks to a tax break for small brewers a second of wave of craft beer crashed over the country in the Oughts with small breweries popping up like Metalman in Waterford, Galway Hooker and Galway Bay, Trouble in Dublin, O Brother in Wicklow and Eight Degrees in Cork County.
After another lull a third stronger wave hit during the mid Teens and with it the awakening of the big giants who started flexing their muscle.
Hope, one of Ireland’s new wave breweries opened by self-described Dutch-Celt Wim de Jongh.
Diageo-owned Guinness came out with a slew of their own craft brands: West Indies Porter, Dublin Porter, Golden Ale and Rye Pale Ale plus Hop House 13 and Rockshore lagers. Then there is Diageo’s Open Gate with various experimentals like Citra Pale Ale.
Said Metalman’s Grainne Walsh, “These industrial crafts may have lifted the overall profile (of craft) but there’s not much benefit in the outlets.”
The other giant is Heineken which invested heavily in Ireland and owns the two other big Irish stouts – Beamish and Murphy’s, brewed in the old Murphy’s plant in Cork which Heineken bought in the 1980s. And now they have US born, going global Lagunitas, under their belt.
Because of the Big Two’s stranglehold on distribution and pubs, craft has so far only managed inroads of 3% into the overall beer market. And with 75 breweries and over 100 brands, things have become a little tight. Most craft brewers have to find their growth in export. And it seems, they are having some success, particular in France and Italy.
O’Hara says another factor that has put a crimp in craft is supermarket chains, who “used to take everything,” and have now cut back a lot.
And then there is habit. Irish drinkers are used to drinking the same thing, and a lot of it. Mainstream is generally between 4 and 5% ABV and much of craft has followed this route. Most craft breweries boast a core lineup, with an array of seasonals and special brews sprinkled in: there are plenty of examples of NEIPAs – yes, the haze craze has hit – Double IPAs, Imperial Stouts, and, yes, a few Sours. And, as in the US, there is plenty of craft community spirit and collaborations abound. Independent brewers have also banded together to form the Independent Craft Brews of Ireland (ICBI), which provides some lobbying presence and promotes an Indie Beer Week in May.
Wicklow Wolf’s Quincey Fennelly is planning on the Tasting Room at his new brewery.
In addition to stubborn habit and resistance to change, brewers face some of the same concerns as in the US – changing tastes in the younger generation. Shane Long, who owns several pubs in addition to his Cork brewpub, says one thing that surprised him is the calorie count, not just by young women, but by young men too.
There is also something of a neo-prohibitionist movement afoot attempting to change Ireland’s image of a nation of drinkers. This has led to very strict enforcement of drinking and driving laws and a difficult environment for many country pubs. We heard that some of the other effects of the new demonization of alcohol are increased drug use among Irish youth. Meanwhile, Heineken has found fertile ground for its Zero, no-alcohol brand and some craft breweries have also tried their hand at N/A – Wicklow Wolf’s Moonlight Non-Alcoholic Hoppy Ale for example.
Beer Fest promoter Bruce Mansour, Mondial de la Biere President Jeannine Marois, Mondial associate Julia Dos Passos and author Tony Forder at Urban Brewing.
The Tasting Room phenomenon that has been such a boon to small brewers in the US has yet to really take off in Ireland. The Intoxicating Liquor (Breweries & Distilleries) Act of 2018 was at first hailed as breakthrough for Ireland’s small breweries to sell directly to the public in tasting rooms, but it soon became clear that the requirements were quite prohibitive. Breweries can only sell after a guided tour has taken place and only from the hours of 10am to 7pm. An alternative license for off sales only is also available. However these costly licenses have to be approved by the Circuit Court, a time-consuming process. Thus far, very few small breweries have taken advantage of the rule change.
In and Around Dublin:
Trouble Brewing Founder Stephen Clinch (right) and partner Brian Treacy.
Trouble Brewing was launched in 2010 by three friends tired of the lack of choice in Irish pubs. Stephen Clinch is the only remaining original and recently took on a new partner, Brian Treacy, who used to work in sales for Stone Brewing Co. Now located in a spacious warehouse in Co. Kildare 40 mins outside of the city, Clinch has seen the ups and downs of the craft market. “For a while we were making as much as we could,” he said. “Now there’s a bit of a slowdown.” Still, Trouble seems to be established enough, with flagships of Golden, IPA, Porter and Wheat alongside such creatively named brews as the Fresh Prince of Kildare New England Double IPA and Hard Candy Rhubarb, Custard & Vanilla Cream Ale. Ambush Juicy Pale Ale is currently popular.
The affable Dutchman Wim (pronounced Vim) De Jongh has become a fixture in the Irish craft brewing world. He opened his Hope brewery, based near Dublin’s old fishing village of Hoath, with his wife Jeanne Mahony in 2015. Their beers are as unassuming as their owners, well crafted and designed for a local following. Wim still prefers bottles to cans, as they are more favored by restaurant locations. There are four core brands, each with a local story such as Handsome Jack IPA, as well as several seasonals and special releases. Tours can be booked.
Rascals got around the tasting room rules by establishing a pizza restaurant at their brewery location. Open seven days a week, they serve an ever-changing variety of brews on rotating taps including some fruited and barrel aged.
Urban Brewing is a new brewpub owned by O’Hara’s in a recently renovated part of the Dublin Docklands. It features huge, vaulted cellars for dining in its Stack A restaurant, while the upstairs bar pours a variety of house-made brews. We particularly enjoyed their Yarrow Gruit Ale. Five Lamps is another trendy new brewpub, opened by C&C beverage group.
The Whiplash brewers were unfortunately out of town during our visit (rumored to be at the J. Wakefield festival in Miami), but we did run into a stellar Double IPA and Imperial Stout at the Underdog bar. We also heard good things about Third Barrel Brewing.
Less than an hour south of Dublin is Wicklow Wolf Brewing Co. Their slogan is ‘Independent by Nature.’
Quincey Fenelly is at the helm, proudly showing off his spanking new 2 million Euro brewery featuring a German Braukon brewhouse. The wolf is big on sustainability. Quincey’s partner, Simon Lynch is a horticulturist and he oversees 10 acres of American and English hop varieties which they use in their harvest Locavore brews, last year a fresh hop oatmeal pale ale. Quincey gestures towards the Wicklow mountains which today are coated with snow and where they plan to plant 2,000 heirloom trees. Doubtless the Wolf is lurking up there somewhere. Led by head brewer Peter Renier who was lured away from Scotland’s Brew Dog, they make a wide variety of styles, all in draft and cans: Core range, Alpha Pack, which runs the full gamut from pale to IPA, lager to oatmeal stout; one-off Endangered Species series, currently a bacon flavored Ranchero Rauchbier; and a collaboration series, Crossbreed, most recently a 5-grain porter with Anspach and Hobday from Bermondsey, London.
Co-Founder (one of 3 brothers) Barry O’Neill is flanked by O’Brother Head Brewer Rich Barrett, right, and Ass’t Phill (they are also brothers).
A couple of miles from Wicklow Wolf is O Brother. Started by three brothers (Barry, Brian and Paddy O’Neill) in 2010, O Brother is what you might call a new wave brewery using old wave equipment, a workhorse of a brewhouse. By coincidence the brewers are also brothers (Rich and Phil Barrett.). They turn out 10-bbl batches of a wide variety of hands-on, cutting edge styles – IPAs from session to juicy dry-hopped doubles. O Brother is well known for its tap takeovers, recently at Dr. Yeast in Lyon, France, and collabs (In Cohoots). We recently tired Bean and Goose Imperial Chocolate Stout.
Metalman Brewing in Waterford is another of Ireland’s 2nd wave craft breweries. Grainne (pronounced Grannya) Walsh and partner Tim jumped into brewing in 2011, first contracting with White Gypsy and then moving into their own brewery in Waterford. They were the first Irish microbrewery to install a canning line in 2014; in fact they were canning the day of our visit, and hadn’t quite finished when we arrived. We had to bang on the garage door to get them to open. Reflecting the current market squeeze, they have culled the workforce back down to three. We offer to help but Grainne just smiles and gives us a Fracture Rye IPA to sip, fresh off the line – Kveik Norwegian yeast and Azacca and Citra hops, 6.5%, very nice!
Reflecting their signature humor, Fracture is named after the Grainne’s broken leg last fall. Their cans sport art deco labels and a plethora of IPAs. The brewery is named after a statue that was erected after a shipwreck off the Waterford coast in the 1800s.
Grainne is off to a the annual meeting of ICBI the next day, so it seems the morrow is a good day for us to visit a couple of the newly non-independents, although ICBI Chair Peter Mosley said he would rather have them involved.
Above, O’Hara’s Senior Brewer Alan Stokes on the job. Below, Grainne and Tim Walsh at Metalman Brewing Co.
At Carlow Brewing Co. Seamus O’Hara is just back from a visit to the US – CiderCon in SF and distributor visits in LA, gearing up for St. Patty’s Day. Of his investment by Estrella Galicia (who are his distributor in Spain) he said, “If you want to expand, you have to take on some sort of investment. I have more independence than if I’d taken on venture capitalism. Some people think if you brew more than 1,000 barrels you’re not craft anymore.”
Like most craft brewers, Carlow distributes its own brands, and like Porterhouse’s affiliate, they carry other brands. Oskar Blues, New Belgium and Firestone Walker are in their portfolio.
Things are humming at the brewery. They have been gobbling up neighboring buildings in their light industrial area, with the latest to possibly house the elusive Tasting Room.
O’Hara’s has significant exports, including the US and Canada, and makes several labels, including two separate brands of cider. The brewery is large, more like a midsize US, but the passion for the job is evidenced by Senior Brewer Alan Stokes, as he shows us around the busy plant. Tours are by appointment.
Brewer Derek is flanked by Eight Degrees Founders Scott Baigent and Cam Wallace.
Amid rain, sleet, hail, snow, and yes sunshine, we head down towards Cork with an end of day stop into Eight Degrees Brewing in Michelstown. Brewer Derek tells us the owners are a couple of Blow-Ins (Irish for immigrants) – Cam from Australia and Scott from New Zealand who teamed up to start Eight Degrees in 2014 (named for it’s longitudinal location, not for the degree of list or lean after consuming their beers).
In 2018 the partners accepted a buy-out from Pernod-Ricard, owners of Jameson Whiskey. The spirits company was interested in a steady flow of barrels aged with beer for their Caskmates program, first begun with Shane Long down at Franciscan Well. The partnership allows Eight Degrees the opportunity to experiment with a whole range of previously unavailable barrels.
There were actually no barrels in sight when we visited – the program was in a winter’s lull. Cam and Scott are still very much involved and they’re turning out highly regarded beers, exporting about 30% with Italy their top market. Scott, an engineer by trade, is particularly proud of their brew kit, a departure from German manufactured Braukon of which we saw a lot. It’s a top-of-the line German Kaspar Schulz 5-vessel system they were able to acquire through a circuitous set of circumstances from a brewery on the island of Mauritius. It took Scott two years to put it back together after it was shipped to Ireland. Appropriate for the season, Howling Gale Pale Ale is one of their core beers. Metric Stout, a monster of an 11.2% imperial stout aged in Jameson whiskey barrels has just been added to their year-round lineup.
Sam and Maud Black in front of their new Italian-built copper still.
A quick jaunt from Cork to coastal Kinsale brings us to Black’s Brewery and Distillery. Owner Sam Black jokes that maybe he shouldn’t have gone to the ICBI meeting the day before – they gave him two jobs, Director and Festival Organizer.
He’s canning too, but with limited space, he’s using outside canners, Irish Craft Canning. These mobile canners are in big demand amongst Ireland’s small breweries.
This year Sam and his wife Maud ripped the bar out of the brewery and in its place stands a shiny new copper distilling system fabricated in Italy, ready for in-house production of Black’s Gin, Whiskey and Rum, the latter an Ireland first. They used to do regular tours, but things changed with the new law and Black’s now partners with a pub in town for tours and tastings.
As well as the award-winning Kinsale Pale Ale, Black’s beers align a little more to the eclectic side of the spectrum. There’s World’s End, chocolate and vanilla imperial stout; the Irish Giant, a 10% barleywine; brews like OG Kush and Pineapple Express which dabble in cannabis terpenes; and for the new decade 2020 vision, a 10% triple IPA.
Pair of Shanes: Irish craft beer pioneer Shane Long.
In Cork, we managed to pin down Franciscan Well owner Shane Long for a few minutes, a hard thing to do we were told. I asked him how he came to sell to Coors. “How long have you got?” he said. Well, I guess he gave us the short version, but even that is too long for this space. Suffice it to say that the brands are doing very well, brewed at the Coors-built brewery (25-35,000 Hl annual output – you’ll see them poured at Dublin’s airport), and Shane still owns the 22-year-old brewpub. Things have come a long way since he said he grossed less than $500 in his first week of operation in 1998.
Pair of Shanes: Rising Sons brewer Shane Murphy.
I also asked him what he thought of Rising Sons, a brewpub debuting in 2014 and pouring a wide variety of session-style beers, which some may have considered competition to his own. “I helped them set it up,” he said. Rising Sons brews and kegs enough beer to supply a collection of pubs their owner, the McCabe family, runs in Cork. Brewer Shane Murphy keeps busy on his caged brewing system behind the bar – yes, it’s Braukon. In Cork I was surprised at the activity in the streets at night – dozens of young men and skimpily clad young women out and about in the wintry weather. When I was told it was Rag Week, things made a bit more sense.
Killarney Brewing Owner, mirthful Paul Sheehan (left) with New Jersey-bred Brewer Mike Bank.
In Killarney, Paul Sheehan has some big plans. At the gateway to the Ring of Kerry, he says 2 million tourists go past his door every season. And to take advantage of that he’s building a $20 million Brewery/Distillery/Visitor Center.
He credits Shane Long for helping set up Killarney Brewing five years ago – yes, sure enough, they have a Braukon system, and a brewer from New Jersey, Mike Bank. Bank says he’s one of several Yanks brewing in Ireland and he’s there for the long haul.
For now they have a pizza oven, and because they offer food, they can also sell pints to patrons. The plan is for a bus service to bring tourists from the local hotels to the new facility which is being built a few miles out of town. The original brewery will be kept for seasonal and more specialized brews.
Dingle is deserted, at least compared to the summer months. But there’s still a lot of activity. Half the town turns out for a funeral the day we are there. In the center of town, Dick Mack’s pub directly across from the church is hosting a wedding party.
Fourth generation owner Finn MacDonnell also credits Shane Long for his help in setting up their small brewery in an 18th century cowshed that is separated from the pub by a courtyard. Yes, it’s a Braukon, but only 5 hectos. The initial plan was to just brew for the pub, but as it turned out, many of the local pubs went gaga over it. Finn says he has 75 taps in Dingle.
West Kerry Brewing Founder Adrienne Heslin and Brewer Daniel O Connor. (He is an Aussie).
Aussie (he’s not from Australia) and Finn in the Dick Mack’s brewhouse.
A little further out on the Dingle peninsular towards the Wild Atlantic Coast Slea Head (where part of the Star Wars Return of the Jedi movie was filmed) Adrienne Heslin is credited as being the first female craft brewer in Ireland, brewing at her West Kerry Brewery since 2008. She has a hands-on system, which she says is in its fourth incarnation, now brewing 5-hecto batches. What she doesn’t sell in her pub mostly goes to Dingle restaurants. Bottling is a chore, one at a time.
The pub, Tig Bhric is only open weekends in the winter. Luckily we there on a Friday and were treated to not only West Kerry – Golden, Pale and Porter – but also music. We thought we had heard traditional Irish in other towns, but this was the high caliber original stuff with mostly accordions and violins, and occasional soloists bursting forth in Gaelic song. Self-catering lodging is also available in the 4-room Brewers Lodge.
The wind and rain were with us again as we headed for Galway. The previous weekend we had experienced Storm Ciara. This one was more mundanely named Dennis. Ciara had in fact forced cancellation for opening celebrations of Galway’s year as a Cultural Capital of Europe. Being the weekend we didn’t get out to the breweries, Galway Bay or Galway Hooker, although both came with good recommendations.
Instead, we were treated to a pub tour by some friends of friends – thanks Kenny and Jess. We started at the Salt House, owned by Galway Bay. Their first pub was the Oslo also in Galway; now they operate eight more pubs in Dublin and one in Belfast, all supplied by their Galway brewery. One brewer described them as “sort of the Brew Dog of Ireland.” Their pubs also carry plenty of guest beers on tap.
Also recommended in Galway: Caribou, Bierhaus, and any one of many Irish pubs.
There’s only so much you can do on a 10-day trip. We’re sorry for the breweries we missed. (I’m not! – driver).
Other breweries we would have liked to visit:
Yellow Belly, Co. Wexford. Check their eclectic website featuring comics based on their brands.
White Hag, Co. Sligo unfortunately not on our route, but tasted some great White Hags – Puca Apricot Sour, IPA and a 13% Rye Wine. They are also known for their summer beer festival Hagstravaganza.
Black Donkey, Co. Roscommon
Kinnegar Brewing, Co. Donegal
And many others…..