Tastings School - The beers of Eire

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The beers of Eire

Iorwerth Griffiths explains that there's more to Ireland than stout.

Then the words ‘beer’ and ‘Ireland’ are mentioned it is the black stuff – stout – that usually springs to mind and one brand in particular – Guinness. Thankfully, there’s a whole lot more to beer in Ireland than that.

Ireland is one of the world’s historic brewing nations and gave the world a distinctive style of beer known as dry stout. But history has not been kind to the breweries of Ireland and the emergence of craft brewing has been rather faltering. Despite this, Ireland is the home of some great beers and well worth a visit.

Stout became a feature of the Irish brewing scene in the port cities of Dublin and Cork in the late 1800s when domestic brewers rushed to copy the popular beer imported from England. However, it was soon given an Irish slant thanks to taxation. A tax on malt was imposed so brewers began to mix unmalted barley into their grist to cut their duty bill. This barley was roasted rather than malted and gave the finished beer the roasted dryness that is the hallmark of Irish dry stout.

However, stout is no longer the drink of choice in Ireland. Sales of stout are in decline and since 1999 less than one in two pints bought is a stout. Nevertheless it still retains an impressive 40 per cent of the market.

The 20th century saw the closure of most of the small breweries due to difficult trading conditions and Guinness monopolising the market. By 1980 eight breweries remained, five of which were either wholly or substantially owned by Guinness.

Craft brewing arrived in the early 1980s but only one survives from that period – Hilden in Northern Ireland. A few others have come and gone since the late 1990s but thankfully a decent number have survived. Craft brewing has been slow to take in Ireland as it is a very tough environment with the dominance of the big multinationals – Diageo, Inbev and Heineken – and their brands making it difficult for small brewers find it to find outlets.

DUBLIN Arthur Guinness secured a 9,000 year lease on small, dilapidated, four acre brewery called Rainsford’s in 1759. From this small acorn a mighty oak did grow. At its height the St James’ Gate Brewery covered 60 acres, had its own power station and narrow gauge railway. The Guinness family became very wealthy and were pillars of the Anglo-Irish establishment.

Guinness started life as an ale brewer but started making porter in 1787 before concentrating exclusively on porter from 1799. Many different versions of Guinness are made at ‘The Gate.’ The most familiar is probably the nitrogenated Draught Guinness. It started life in the 1960s after experiments were carried out to replace the old method of serving Guinness from two casks. Two-thirds of a pint was drawn from highly conditioned fresh stout and then, once the head had subsided, it was topped up with stale, or mature, stout for flavour. When the changeover was made the two-part pour was retained to convince consumers that the new beer was the same as the old even though it now came from a single keg.

Guinness Extra Stout is the principal bottled version and is more fully flavoured than Draught Guinness though it can be hard to find.

However, at the top of the tree sits Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. This is a richly flavoured complex classic and worth seeking out.

In 1997 Guinness merged with Grand Met and became Diageo. The brewery is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary but Diageo, in a recent review of its brewing operations in Ireland, announced that half of the present site would be sold off. ‘The Gate’ will still be the main brewery for Guinness. A new brewery will be built on the outskirts of Dublin and it will also brew Guinness as well as Diageo’s other brands.

Visitors are catered for at the Guinness Storehouse, Ireland’s number one tourist attraction.

Although the Gravity Bar at the top offers a fantastic panoramic view of Dublin, there’s not a whole lot for the beer enthusiast in the preceding six or so floors..

The largest craft brewery in Ireland is also found in Dublin. The Porterhouse operates a brewery and four pubs in and around Dublin with a fifth in London’s Covent Garden. It started out as a brewpub in the Temple Bar district of Dublin in 1996, but success and an increasing number of outlets meant moving production to a dedicated site on the outskirts of the city.

It brews a range of beers. There are three lagers, a delicious Bavarian-style wheat beer, three ales – including the cask conditioned TSB – and three stouts, one of which, Oyster Stout, has real oysters added at the end of the boil. However, it is the robust Wrasslers XXXX Stout which is the pick of the bunch.

Completing the Dublin scene is Messrs Maguire’s.

This brewpub sits on the banks of the Liffey near O’Connell Bridge. Brewer Cuilan Loughnane brews an eclectic and changing range of beers from traditional styles such as porter through to more continental beers such as an excellent bock. The range usually includes Rusty Red Ale, one lager such as a Czech or German style pilsner and a stout.

CORK Cork is known as the city of spires but it could also be called the city of stouts, as Cork was the only city where brewers of the black stuff were able to survive in the face of Guinness. The Cork big two did so mainly because of the tied house system which kept Guinness at bay for a good while. The oldest of these is Beamish and Crawford established way back in 1792. In the 19th century it outsold Guinness but had some tough times in the 1950s leading to being taken over but Canadians Breweries of Carling Black Label fame.

It boasts a beautiful mock-Tudor frontage and makes the delicious coffeeish, chocolatey Beamish Stout, arguably the pick of the big three breweries’ draught stouts. They also brew the malty, fruity Beamish Red as well as some lagers under licence.

The future of this great old brewery is currently under a cloud as it was part of Scottish and Newcastle which has recently been taken over by the joint Heineken and Carlsberg bid. In the division of assets, Heineken looks set to acquire Beamish and Crawford but it already owns Cork’s other large brewery.

This brewery is Murphy’s, currently trading as Heineken Ireland. Whereas Beamish and Crawford was set up by two Protestants, Murphy’s was the ‘Catholic brewery.’ James J Murphy established the business in 1856 and by the early 1900s it had eclipsed its Cork rival. But, like Beamish and Crawford, it too suffered lean times and for a time in the 1970s leading to it being run by the state rescue service before being rescued from administration by Heineken.

Murphy’s Irish Stout is one of the milder Irish stouts but has that chocolatey quality that seems to define the Cork style. Murphy’s accounts for only around 20 per cent of the plant’s output, the remainder is made up of various lagers including Heineken.

Cork also boasts a great brewpub – the Franciscan Well. It is of a more recent vintage, 1998 to be precise, and has a beer garden from which the inside of the brewhouse can be inspected. They make five main beers – a lager, a fruity red ale, a Bavarian-style wheat beer, a stout and the delightful Blarney Blonde which is a refreshing Kölsch-style beer. There are also seasonal specials.

THE WEST The Biddy Early Brewpub is named after a local ‘wise woman’ and is the pioneer of craft brewing in the Republic of Ireland.

The pub has been there for more than 200 years and when owner and industrial chemist Dr Peadar Garvey retired he got bored just running a pub so in 1995 he decided to start brewing as well.

It brews three beers: Blonde Biddy which is a pilsner style lager, Red Biddy – a superb red ale using bog myrtle instead of aroma hops giving it a herbal quality and an excellent stout called, yes, you’ve guessed it, Black Biddy. Other seasonal brews are also available.

Biddy Early is based in the tiny hamlet of Inagh in County Clare close to the tourist destinations of the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren but such is the decline in the rural pub trade that this brewery is under threat of closure. It is brewing a batch of beer for summer 2008 but it could be the last. If so it will be a sad loss as it brews very high quality beers indeed.

Also out west is the new Hooker Brewery. Cousins Aidan Murphy and Ronan Brennan are behind this recent start-up and have focussed on brewing one beer well. Galway Hooker – named after a local sailing craft but with other connotations – is a pale ale in the iconic Sierra Nevada style and is very much one of a kind in Ireland. They went for a very full flavoured style – ‘let’s chuck a load of hops in’ as they put it – coupled with some witty and/or risqué advertising – ‘nothing goes down like a Galway Hooker’ – it is proving to be a bit of a hit.

The west could see two new breweries in the not to distant future with one being established in Clifden, County Galway and a brewpub in Ballyferriter on the beautiful Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry.

THE SOUTH The Carlow Brewery is housed in what was an old railway goods store, a change from the industrial units most craft brewers seem to have to make do with. Its beer has won awards and it’s easy to see why. Three beers are produced: Curim, a filtered wheat beer but hoppier than one would expect, the robust and tasty O’Hara’s Irish Red (formerly known as Molings Red) and O’Hara’s Stout with its lovely smoky, roasty character.

St Francis Abbey Brewery claims a history back to 1710 but this is hard to substantiate. The first definite record is in 1827 when Edmund Smithwick bought a brewery and distillery at the site of the old abbey. The brewery has experienced fluctuating fortunes over the years becoming part of the Guinness-led Irish Ale Breweries group before being absorbed into Guinness – now Diageo – in 1988. It produces an unremarkable kegged ale under the Smithwick’s name and the nitrogenated Kilkenny Ale but the bulk of the output is taken up with brewing Budweiser under licence for the Irish market. This brewery is set to close and production transferred to Diageo’s new plant outside Dublin.

The old Cherry Brewery in Waterford still exists. It is part of Diageo and produces Guinness Flavour Extract, a concentrated hopped wort sent to be blended in with local beers made all over the world to magically turn them into Guinness.

THE NORTH The oldest craft brewery in Ireland lies just outside Belfast. Hilden Brewery is based in the village of the same name and was started back in 1981 by the Scullion family. There are five beers brewed under the Hilden name – all cask conditioned.

They also brew beers under the College Green label. There are plans to open a small brewery in Belfast under this name sometime in the future.

Northern Ireland’s other brewery is based near the village of Kilkeel in the Mountains of Mourne. Whitewater Brewery is housed on the Sloan family farm and as well as the staple Belfast Ale, Whitewater produces a variety of other cask conditioned beers throughout the year including the fantastically named Clotworthy Dobbin. This beer is a superb malty, roasty, chocolatey gem.

Just over the border in Dundalk is the Diageo-owned Great Northern Brewery.

It’s main job is to produce Carlsberg under licence as well as Harp and a number of other undistinguished lagers. It does however produce one gem – Macardles Irish Ale. Macardles is a reminder of Dundalk’s other brewery – Macardle Moore – which was closed by Diageo in 2001. Although it can be hard to find, Macardles is a delicious, nutty Irish ale and certainly the best ale made by the big three Irish companies. This is another of Diageo’s plants that is due to close following the recent review.

The dominance of the Irish beer scene by the big brands makes it a tough environment for small craft brewers.

However there are a number of excellent beers to enjoy. Guinness may be the first word that springs to mind when one considers Irish beer but it certainly shouldn’t be the last.

There’s far more to Irish beer than the famous Dublin stout.

The breweries
Beamish & Cawford plc
South Main Street, Cork
Tel: +353 (0)21 4911 100
Choice beer: Beamish Irish Stout 4.3%
Biddy Early Brewery
Ennis, County Clare
Tel: +353 (0)65 683 6742
Choice Beer: Red Biddy 4.9%
Carlow Brewing Company
Station Road, Carlow
Tel: +353 (0)59 913 4356
Choice beer: O’Hara’s Celtic Stout 4.3%
The Franciscan Well Brewery
North Mall, Cork City
Tel: +353 (0)21 421 0130
Choice beer: Blarney Blonde 4.2%
Great Northern Brewery
Dundalk, County Louth
Tel: +353 (0)1 483 6700
Choice beer: Macardles Irish Ale 4.0%
Heineken Ireland
Leitrim Street, Cork
Tel: +353 (0)21 450 3371
Choice beer: Murphy’s Irish Stout 4.3%
Hilden Brewery
Lisburn, Co. Antrim
Tel: +44 (0)28 9266 0800
Choice beer: Molly’s Chocolate Stout 4.2%
Hooker Brewery
Roscommon Town
Tel: +353 (0)87 776 2823
Choice beer: Galway Hooker 4.4%
Messrs Maguires
Burgh Quay, Dublin
Tel: +353 (0)1 670 5777
Choice beer: Bock 6.5%
The Porterhouse Brewing Company
Parliament Street, Dublin
Tel: +353 (0)1 671 5715
Choice beer: Wrasslers XXXX Stout 5.0%
St Francis Abbey Brewery (Smithwick’s)
Parliament Street, Kilkenny
Tel: +353 (0)56 772 1014
Choice beer: Smithwick’s 4.5%
St James Gate Brewery (Guinness)
Tel: +353 (0)1 483 6700
Choice beer: Guinness Foreign
Extra Stout 7.5%
Whitewater Brewery
Kilkeel, County Down
Tel: +44 (0)28 4176 9449
Choice beer: Clotworthy Dobbin 5%