The future is wide open for for the craft beer industry if it sticks to its guns, reports Leslie Williams.
Up until very recently going to the pub for a pint of beer was straightforward — there were three choices — branded lager, Smithwicks or Stout.
At least in Cork you could have Beamish or Murphy’s but for most people in Ireland if you wanted to drink beer with some actual flavour you had to drink Guinness (served far too cold).
Today, if you enter a pub in a town like Templemore or Cahir, you will find the local White Gypsy beers, in Mitchelstown it will likely be 8 Degrees beer and in the cities it is impossible to predict what will be available on tap or in bottle.
There are now over 100 different craft beer brands in Ireland (by “craft” I simply mean small-scale), just over 60 of whom have their own brewery with the remainder brewing under contract. We are certainly in a beer boom in Ireland but are we likely to also see a bust?
At the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival this weekend is Garret Oliver who was right there at the start of the craft beer boom in the USA and has been one of the drivers of the industry through his role as brewmaster for Brooklyn Brewery and as an advocate for beer and food matching.
I began by asking Garret if he had any advice for all the new brewers — “keep it simple, make the beer you really want to drink,” he says.
“If there’s something that you think is delicious, and you think you can brew it better than everybody else, brew that. Don’t try to follow the market — lead people where you want to go”.
Oliver believes the future is wide open for the craft industry and his words should provide encouragement to brewers and anyone that simply wants a bit of flavour in their beer. Currently the craft market here is under 2% but in the US it is over 7% and growing.
“Beer is just like food with a brilliant and differentiated past and a recent industrial present, we are growing out of that industrialised boring beer era,” he says.
According to the Oxford Companion to Beer Ireland (editor in chief, Garret Oliver), Ireland had 200 breweries in the 19th Century with 55 in Dublin alone so he might be right about this.
“We are now seeing a return to the great flavours and variety we once had. To have a large part of the market taken up with highly flavoured beer is normal.
In Portland, Oregon, craft beer has more than 40% of the market. That is going to be the ‘new normal’. The only question is how long it will take; there is no limit on craft beer.”
Of course Ireland had a mini craft beer boom before in the 1990s but few from that era survived, mainly through severe pressure from the big boys (deep discounting, free kegs, interest free loans etc).
Anecdotal reports are that this is happening again, in addition the likes of Guinness and Heineken now have their own in-house “craft” beers.
Oliver is once again optimistic about these new pressures.
“The early craft pioneers were trying to fill an ocean. It’s really hard. Now there is an ocean to swim in — it’s still shallow, but it gets deeper every day. The only thing you can really do is not to play the money game. It is a game that you will lose,” he says.
“Quality and flavour is where you can win… let the big guys play games with cash. It only works for a while. Eventually, actual beer sales and relevance become more important than freebies. Move the game off their field and onto your field.”
Is it really that simple I ask?
“Consistency is primary, get a lab, work on your skills and technical knowledge, if you don’t have them, get them. The days of jumping straight from your kitchen into a brewery are long over.”
The beers Garret Oliver will be presenting at LitFest later today and tomorrow demonstrate just how far outside the box he is willing to think — a cider lees-aged ale and a brettanomyces yeast porter to name just two (brettanomyces is a yeast that can spoil wine but is essential to the flavour profile of Belgian Geuze beer).
“We are brewing beers that interest us — I love cocktails and wine and I’m an avid cook. I worked with Claus Meyer in Denmark when he was opening Noma and inventing a new Scandinavian food idiom and I was at Ballymaloe House in the 1990s when Darina Allen was doing pioneering work in Ireland — all of these sensibilities find their way into our beers.
"Right now we are using barrel ageing, mixed fermentations, cocktail inspirations, historical inspirations — there are a lot of branches to this tree.”
Oliver’s final advice to the Irish craft industry is simple “Quality, quality, quality. And then quality.” Let’s hope our brewers are listening.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved