Raise a glass to craft beer

To mark the Irish Craft Beer Festival this weekend, Joe McNamee gets a taste of the local brewing scene.

Raise a glass to craft beer

MORE than 10,000 visitors are expected to raise a glass to their lips at the RDS Irish Craft Beer Festival this weekend at a gathering of our very best craft beer and cider brewers, showcasing over 200 craft beers and ciders from all over Ireland.

To many, Brian Cowen will forever be the man who had his hand on the chain when Ireland was flushed down the fiscal toilet but there will always remain a soft spot for him in the hearts of craft brewers. In 2005, he implemented a policy whereby micro-breweries producing fewer than 20,000 hectolitres of beer per annum would be entitled to a 50% tax rebate.

It takes time to set up a brewery so it was several years before the effect became visible but the last few years have seen an explosion in Irish craft brewing and there are now (at time of going to print) 42 microbreweries with another 20 micro-brewing companies employing other brewers to produce their product. Nor does this proliferation show any signs of abating with that number expected to eventually rise to 100, according to Reuben Gray, the chairman of Beoir, the Irish consumer group responsible for native craft beers.

It has been one of the few success stories of the downturn, as beer consumers make more considered spending decisions, opting in this case for high-quality beers with real taste and flavour.

The first wave of Irish craft beers began in the 1990s and found a ready audience but mainstream breweries came down hard and fast and did everything in their power to discourage publicans from stocking craft beers.

“The big boys called the shots, there were all these barriers and our solution was to start exporting at an early stage,” says Seamus O’Hara of Carlow Brewing Company.

In the 1990s there were 11 craft brewers but only three, Porterhouse, Carlow, and Franciscan Well, are still around. With the latter having been taken over by Molson Coors, it no longer qualifies as a micro-brewery, though the takeover allows it to produce ever more wonderfully esoteric and exotic craft beers than it did as an independent.

Over 1,000 pubs have closed since the beginning of the recession but the pubs still prospering include those who have embraced the craft beer revolution, especially when pairing it with menus featuring the best Irish specialty food products. And now we are looking at the rise of the brew-pub with three coming on-stream in Cork City this year.

The Cotton Ball in Mayfield and the recently opened Rising Sons, on Cornmarket St, are already retailing their own beers produced on the premises and will soon be joined by Elbow Lane, on Oliver Plunkett St. The Franciscan Well, one of the original Irish brewpubs, has just opened the country’s first dedicated beer tasting room. But for any old fogies dismissing craft beer as just another trend, it is worth remembering this is just the latest stage in an ongoing cycle: about 100 years ago, there were roughly 100 breweries in Ireland before eventually all were bought up.

Gray says: “The Irish market started to take off in 2008. I was a member of the Irish craft brewer homebrew club and we were the only ones tracking and cataloguing what was going on in the craft beer scene and were the go-to body for the media whenever craft beer stories came up. In 2009, the European beer consumers union asked if we’d be interested in becoming a beer consumer group, looking out for the consumer’s interests.

“We only give support to what we consider to be independent Irish craft breweries: that is, they are in receipt of the tax rebate because they fit the criteria. They are independently owned and produce no more than 20,000 hectolitres of beer per year. They can even be owned by another brewery as long as their combined resources don’t exceed the 20k limit.

“We keep a directory of all stockists of Irish craft beer and our members are always on the lookout from the pubs, keeping an eye on things. There is no sign of the rise in numbers of craft brewers stopping and we reckon there is certainly room for about 100 or so breweries.

“We have the same population as we had 100 years ago, when there were about 100 breweries. That wheel can turn again and the craft breweries of today will someday be buying up other craft breweries but we are at least 10 years away from that scenario.

“The big boys, the multi-nationals are certainly taking notice; all of a sudden you have them coming out with things like the ‘Craft Collection’.

“If I came across a place that didn’t serve Irish craft beer? Well, I quite like Guinness, as it happens, but there are much better things I could be drinking.”

Eight Degrees Brewing Company

Caroline Hennessy’s partner, Scott Baigant, is co-proprietor, along with Cam Wallace, of Mitchelstown-based Eight Degrees Brewing Company, and Caroline looks after Marketing & PR.

Caroline and Kristen Jensen, are co-authors of the Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer & Cider (New Island).

BEST BEER: Amber Ella, award-winning American-style Amber Ale, a sweet, citrus-y nose, with a lovely fruity, hoppy bite.

“Even though the craft beer industry can talk up a storm, it is still only 1% of the overall beer market. There are still an awful lot of people who don’t realise it is Irish, haven’t come across craft beer or don’t know they have a brewery in their own town. We see craft brewing running alongside the whole artisan food industry, people looking for local food produced by people you can put a face to, and craft beer is the same. In some restaurants you see menus full of fabulous food producers and then the only beers available are Guinness and Heineken. If you put so much passion into the food on your premises, why not into the drinks you offer? The restaurants and cafes really exciting me these days are seeking out small brewers and putting them on their menus, matching food and beer, putting in an effort across the board. Craft beer is produced by really passionate people, committed to producing really good beer with excellent flavours, but transparency is very important; finding out what goes into my Irish craft beer and that it’s being brewed in Ireland. You need to be open about who owns you. If I buy a Franciscan Well beer, now owned by Molson Coors, that is not a problem, it doesn’t affect the flavour. But if I want to support a craft brewery and buy one that I think is from a small producer but find out it is owned by a multi-national.”

White Gypsy Brewery, Templemore

Cuilán Loughnane is the ‘brewer’s brewer’, a weathervane for the industry whose first experiments with brewing began in Canada in the mid-90s, and then worked in the industry before opening White Gypsy Brewery in his native Templemore.

BEST BEER: Doppelbock, strong, smooth and malty with lovely notes of caramel and light fruit. Superb with charcuterie and smoked food.

“The day I bought the brewery was the day the bank guarantee was issued in Ireland, in September 2008, when the whole country was going down the toilet.

“It was a terrible worry at the time but, in retrospect, it was the best time for it to happen. People had a lot less money and were more careful how they spent it.

“They realised that commercial beer was pretty poor value for money. It was more or less the same price in the pubs but the craft beer had a lot nicer flavour.

“Around about October 2009 was when the Irish craft beer industry noticed a real jump in growth when we were expecting it to be quiet. Selling locally, the biggest problem we had was getting people’s heads around the fact that it is not the standard product, a Guinness or a Smithwick’s. My cousin has a pub in Borrisoleigh and we began there and I’d say at this stage close to 50% of the beer sold there is White Gyspy.

“Then the lads would go into Thurles on match days and would ask for it and slowly it began to grow. It is a fantastic opportunity, we have the best malt and barley in Europe, the climate is perfect for it and we can grow hops. We are known all over the world for drink; we don’t have the products to match that reputation but we are now getting to the stage were we do have the product and we have the opportunity to develop the best craft brewing industry in the world because we are starting with a completely clean slate.

“I am now the head of the Independent Irish Craft Brewers Association and we are always talking about working together — not on our own.

“I’d hate to see the opportunity blown, we just need to make sure we do it right.”

Dungarvan Brewing Company

Claire Dalton is one of the four founders of Dungarvan Brewing Company along with her husband Tom Dalton, her brother Cormac O’Dwyer and Cormac’s wife Jen Uí Dhuibhir.

BEST BEER: Black Rock Stout, for old school fans of the ‘bottle from the shelf’, smooth, chocolate-y.

“Cormac was the home brewer and got Tom interested and we eventually launched on April 9, 2010.

“It was a big leap and we were definitely nervous —friends and family were trying to get their heads around it because beer was a bit of an unknown in those years. But it’s a lot easier to explain these days; now it’s hard not to find our beer around the town of Dungarvan.

“Traditionally, beer was supposed to be a man’s drink but women are a huge growth area and there are so many beers for women to try and get into.

“We have a definition of a microbrewery set out in law but personally, it means that it is handmade by a small company — you know where it is made; you know who is making it and what they are using in terms of ingredients.

“Transparency is really important. We’re not required by law to put the ingredients on the label but we do generally. We even put the type of hops because people want to know these things now.

“It is an exciting time for the industry and we have a lot more to give and want to be part of it.”

Bradley’s, North Main St, Cork

Michael Creedon is the third generation of his family to run the iconic Cork institution, Bradley’s, on North Main St, retailing one of the very best independent wine and craft beer selections in the country (over 400 craft beers including 70+ Irish craft beers).

“My concern is that Irish craft beer is seen as the goose that laid the golden egg and now a load of people are jumping on the bandwagon, some producing beers that are not good enough. They are not giving enough care to the finished product. Some retailers and off-licences are not selling it with enough love or passion; they just see it as another bandwagon they have to jump on. The multiple supermarket chains have spotted the market and you can’t argue with the increased exposure for Irish craft brewers but they treat it like everything else they sell. This is a premium product; my fear is that they will kill the beer market just as they’ve killed the wine market.

“Wine is my original passion and love but you can drink craft beer with food and this has changed the way we feel about beer.”

Black’s Brewery, Kinsale

Sam Black met his now-wife Maudeline (from Clonakilty) in Australia where he also learned to love craft beers.

They moved to Kinsale about 12 years ago, where he worked as an engineer until the launch of Black’s Kinsale Craft Brewery in September 2013.

BEST BEER: Kinsale Pale Ale, sharp hoppy intro gives way to fresh, citric fruity flavours.

“Maudeline gave me a home brewing kit as a present one Valentine’s Day and that quickly grew from a hobby to an obsession, until eventually we decided to start this place. We’ve come a long way in a year and it will be interesting to see what happens. Irish products in the US and Britain have a premium image and Irish craft brewers can definitely capitalise on that. Our beer is in quite a few pubs in Cork and most local pubs and restaurants in Kinsale and the Kinsale venues really seem to be pushing it, especially to tourists, as a local beer. We can’t keep up with demand. We want to keep expanding our domestic market and get up to speed to meet demand and keep everyone happy and then export is definitely on the cards. There is already a lot of interest from the US, France and Italy and we already have stuff going up to the North of Ireland. We’ll probably need to build a premises from the ground up because of expansion. There is also tourism; at the moment it’s on a casual walk-in basis and we are not doing as much as we could but we will definitely expand that for next season.”

Franciscan Well, Cork

Shane Long grew up in Bishopstown, Cork and became a partner in the Franciscan Well Bar, in Cork City, first brewing in 1998. The award-winning brewery was bought out in 2013 by multinational Molson Coors.

The Franciscan Well have just opened Ireland’s very first dedicated beer tasting room in their North Mall HQ.

BEST BEER: Rosemary & Clementine Saison, limited edition, fresh, fruity with ‘clean’ clove notes.

“I was running a pub in England and a venture capitalist owned the ’Well and tried to headhunt me. This was in the days of the Celtic Tiger when it was impossible to get people to work in the service industry. I had a good setup in London so I said I’d only come back if they made me a partner. I had a huge interest in the brewing sector in England so I started the brewing here myself and it just took off.

“We had an American brewer, Russell Garrett, with us from the start but if we didn’t have the pub, we’d have been gone. For the first six years, 70% of the beer was sold through the pub, now it is only about 10%. I didn’t think we’d make it. The only reason we did is my business partner Liam and myself had other businesses.

“There were 11 breweries operating in the 90s, there are only three of those left: us, The Porterhouse and Carlow Brewing Company. The difference is we were businessmen, not just brewers. People back then had the perception that it was all ‘pots and pans out the back’ and realistically, it is only in the last few years that has changed. For us, all the awards we were starting to win abroad really put us in the driving seat.

“I was at a conference recently in Dublin telling some of the new wave of brewers that I didn’t take a wage out of the business for ten years and a few jaws dropped. I wasn’t interested in selling but my partner was. There were four offers for the brewery but the others weren’t the right fit; the Molson Coors offer was the only one allowing me to drive the direction the company would take and there is no way we could have taken the risks and innovated the way we have since then without that backing. One of the lads, Paudie Scully, was very wary of the deal at first so I said he could do the very first brew under the new ownership and his Coffee Porter won bronze at the world beer awards. I’ve met many great brewers who’ve never won anything at the awards and here was an assistant brewer allowed to come out with his own concept and run with it. I think there will be steady growth for the next five years and then it will level out. The cream will rise to the top and there will be a lot of casualties, the same as in any industry. We want to be one of the innovators, not just in Ireland but globally. I want to see my beer in other countries but very slowly. You can go too fast too soon. I’ve worked too hard to build this up.”

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