There’s a whole lot more to Irish brewing than stout. Susanna Forbes heads over to the Emerald Isle to check out the people and products behind the revitalised beer and cider scene who will soon be making waves over here
The reason we are where we are is the water. Paul sent me the water reports for the various locations [he was looking at]. I looked at this one in disbelief – it was ideal.’
I am standing, surrounded by barrels, in a cavernous former car showroom with Joe Kearns, brewmaster at The White Hag, arguably Ireland’s hottest young brewery. We’re in Ballymote,
near the Wild Atlantic Way on the western Irish coast. Water quality might not sound critical to you and me, but to Kearns, who was about to transplant his family from Ohio to the land of Guinness, it was a vital USP.
While it’s an urban myth that Guinness is brewed with particularly hard water, three-quarters of Ireland is based on limestone. Ballymote, however, is surrounded by bogs and lakes, making for soft water with a low mineral content. Sound familiar? Yep – that’s pilsner territory. So particularly versatile.
‘From the get-go, we were going to push the envelope,’ Kearns says. ‘When we launched [in 2014], we had seven beers and our only stout was 10.2%.’ Their sour Irish heather ale Beann Gulban proved a game-changer. ‘We wanted to resurrect our history,’ explains owner Paul Mullin.
‘The real focus is the UK beer market,’ says Mullin of the barrel-aged beer series, which made its debut in late March this year. Judging from the captivating complexity of the evolving Black Boar Imperial Oatmeal Stout which Kearns extracts for me to taste, these will be cherished arrivals.
Ireland has traditionally had three beer styles – a lager or pale ale, a red ale and a stout. While everyone prides themselves on their stouts, sours and barrel-aged beers are grabbing the headlines. ‘We have a jug of yeast which we call “the funky bunch”,’ says Kearns of their sour beer yeast.
The desire to finesse production processes as well as to craft something different shows the minute you arrive at Eight Degrees Brewing in County Cork. Established by Kiwi Scott Baigent and Aussie Cam Wallace in 2011, the sky-high silo outside the brewery and the mill it enshrines were born of necessity – at the time of founding, 25kg bags of local Irish malt weren’t available.
Now, however, the chance to grind to their own spec is a positive advantage. ‘The fresher the better,’ says marketing manager Caroline Hennessy. ‘Like coffee. And it tastes gorgeous!’
Characterised by vivid flavours, Eight Degrees achieved fame early on, by trouncing hundreds of rivals to pick up a Bronze in the American Pale Ale category of the World Beer Cup with its very own APA, Amber Ella.
There are no signs of complacency though. ‘It’s not enough to produce a good beer once,’ says Baigent. ‘It has to be consistent.’
To that end, he recently went over to Mauritius to scope out a new brewkit, made by ‘the Rolls Royce’ of brewkit manufacturers, Kaspar Schulz. The fancy kit allows him to control temperatures to one-tenth of a degree.
For its own twist on the Irish classics, Eight Degrees is maturing stout in Burgundy Pinot Noir casks and saison in Chardonnay casks. ‘We wanted to see how wine characteristics interplay with the beer,’ says Baigent.
The market’s desire for local products has been another spur. Leigh and Ashley Williams own the River Valley Holiday Park in Redcross, Wicklow, and began by converting a crèche into the atmospheric Mickey Finn’s pub. Sensing the dynamism of the sector, the Williams duo launched Wicklow Brewery in late 2012.
Heading up brewing now is talented Jason Carroll, whose CV includes two years with the godfather of Irish brewing, Shane Long at Franciscan Well. Within months of arriving, Carroll scored an International Beer Challenge Trophy for HopKnut, a beautifully balanced Irish Pale Ale. Creations since have been similarly refreshing.
‘I wanted something everyone could enjoy,’ says Dave O’Hare, co-founder of Brú Brewery. ‘From my grandfather to my mates, including my mum who is coeliac.’ Hence a stylish, flavourful range including its multi-garlanded gluten-free lager, plus a fine selection of seasonals.
O’Hare attributes his love of ingredients to his agricultural background, along with being used to long hours. Lucky really, considering he and fellow co-founder Daire Harlin opened three bars in the second half of 2016, three years after Brú.
Speaking of brewpubs, Dublin’s original, the Porterhouse Brewing Company, has chosen to celebrate its 21st birthday by sharing its core range – try the Red Ale for starters – beyond its Covent Garden London outpost (Boutique Bar Brands).
Meanwhile, in Belfast, Matt Dick is shaking things up with his Boundary Brewing Cooperative. With evidence of former shipbuilding glory all around, Boundary is among the new businesses regenerating life in the east of the city.
Marrying US, Belgian and French styles, Boundary has notched up more than 80 different brews. It’s renowned for its sour beers – look for its A Berliner Vice and d’Être Saison series – and also check out its Chilli Porter and Push and Pull series.
The big boys
As individuality and market forces give new brewers the confidence to strike out on their own, so the old guard are responding in determined fashion. While Guinness retains its hold on the Republic’s consciousness, Diageo has established The Brewers Project. So far two new porters and the Hop House 13 lager have successfully travelled over, with the prospect of further newcomers in 2017.
As with beer, craft cider is also migrating out of the shadows, this time of Magners (or Bulmers, as it’s known on the Emerald Isle). To be fair, apple growing has strong roots on the island, with talk of hundreds of cider apple varieties back in the 17th and 18th century.
In Northern Ireland, Armagh has a PGI for Bramley apples. However, the bulk of these go into the slice-and-dice market, for pies. But things are changing. We are walking through Helen Troughton’s orchards of gnarly, 40-year-old Bramleys.
‘Ten years ago no-one was interested in local,’ says the trailblazing matriarch at the helm of the Armagh Cider Company.
In partnership with husband Philip and son Mark, Troughton crafts two ranges: Carsons Crisp and Maddens Mellow under the original Armagh umbrella, and Dooley’s, for the younger market. They also offer bottling for other producers, both north and south of the border.
Nearby, Greg McNeice also works with a mixture of Bramleys and cider apples in his MacIvors range. A fifth-generation fruit grower, his 22 acres of orchards include 14 different apples, with prized varieties such as Lord Lambourne. Ten more acres are being planted with a mix of bittersweet varieties.
Another commercial newcomer, over in County Down, is Andrew Boyd. Always leaning towards self-sufficiency, Boyd decided to make the most of fruit from an ancient orchard his father had uncovered a few decades ago. Three years after setting up Kilmegan Cider in 2013, Boyd picked up an International Cider Challenge Trophy and Reserve Champion at the Royal Bath & West Show. More plantings are in prospect, says Boyd, ‘to see what grows best in this northern climate’.
Back south, in Drogheda near Dublin, fruit farmer Olan McNeece set up Dan Kelly’s in 2013, naming his cider after his great-grandfather, who rode the Great Northern Railway from Belfast to Dublin. With 14,000 trees on 80 acres, the McNeeces supplied Magners for decades. Made from a blend of cider varieties plus Bramley and dessert fruit, his original cider has been joined by the Whisky Cask and Olan’s Tart, his collaboration with Kinnegar Brewery.
Such bold growth doesn’t come without some risk. Long believes that breweries are growing faster than their customer base, and that quality can be mixed. He predicts that while some more breweries will open, others will close, or contract their distribution. ‘But there are some fantastic breweries,’ he says. ‘Like Rising Sons, Yellow Belly and Rascals. Really world class.’
Ireland’s brewing in a nutshell
From a high point of 2,000 at the start of the 18th century, the number of breweries in Ireland shrank to just eight in 1960. Now the total for the entire island is heading towards three figures, with a sizeable proportion having their beers brewed under contract.
Notable pioneers include Seamus O’Hara, who set up Carlow Brewing Company, and Shane Long, founder of Franciscan Well Brewery (now part of Molson Coors), who continues to act as a mentor to many of today’s brewers. Currently accounting for 3% of total beer volumes, O’Hara, one of the founders of the Independent Craft Brewers of Ireland, thinks the craft beer share could reach 10% within five to 10 years. Keep an eye out for the ICBI logo as a guarantee of provenance.
While there are a number of distributors with Irish beers, Ireland Craft Beers (irelandcraftbeers.com) has made the category its own. Set up two years ago, the company offers 200 products from around 20 artisan producers. You can also try: Beer Hawk, Beers of Europe, Diageo, Funky Beers, Hills Prospect and Matthew Clark.
Six to try
Kinnegar, Rustbucket Rye Ale
Vivid hops partner a well-balanced palate, showing tropical fruits aplenty on the nose and a more pine-like bitterness on the finish.
5.1% abv, POA/12x50cl, Nelson Sauvin, 07813 178 552
Orpens, Fresh Pressed Apple Cider
Marrying cider king Dabinett with fresh-faced Katie, this refreshingly tangy cider is the result of late-night chats between renowned South African winemaker Bruce Jack with local lads Matt Tindal and Chris Hill.
5.3% abv, POA/24x33cl, Matthew Clark, 0344 822 3910
Kilmegan, Real Cider Dry
Elegant and eloquent, with fine tannins and flavours plus a hint of peach and russet. Match with crab linguine or pressed pork belly.
6.8% abv, POA/12x50cl, Kilmegan, 07751 380 353
MacIvors, Medium Cider
Lightly stewed apple on the palate and sprightly Cox on the finish. Versatile on the food front, from young sheep’s cheese through to apple fritter and ice cream.
4.5% abv, POA/12x50cl, MacIvors, 028 3885 1381
O’Hara’s, ‘OPsession IPA
Lively grapefruit, lemon and pine aromas, leading to light, crisp malty notes, underlying the bitterness on the palate.
4% abv, £99.99/30l keg, Funky Beers, 0800 177 7442
White Hag, Black Boar, Imperial Oatmeal Stout
Sumptuous, this barrel-aged beauty was Beoir members’ Beer of the Year 2015.
10.2% abv, £42/24x33cl; £149/30l keg, Ireland Craft Beers, 07821 741 924