Thursday, 17 March 2011

Irish beer today. Not the usual stuff.

Around the middle of March, Irish people get stuck into a little bit of navel gazing, and papers are filled with articles assessing how the rest of the world views Ireland. These days, most might refer to the current economic plight of the Nation, but invariably, people abroad often express their thoughts of Ireland in terms of the craic, and “the beer”. Of course, in Ireland’s case, “the beer” might as well be singular, as the iconic pint of the black stuff is like an avatar of Irishness the world over.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. In the early 1800s, Ireland was scattered with breweries and distilleries, and at least every small town seemed to have at least one or the other (we’ve already  identified over 160 breweries from the 1830s). By the 1960s, most were gone, bought out and turned from being independent producers of beer, into bottlers under the yoke of one of the big breweries. In places like Dublin and Cork, choice held out for as long as it could for the discerning customer, until eventually, the likes of Phoenix, Anchor, Sweetman, Findlaters, Manders and Thunder were undercut, shut down, bought out, assimilated or built over by the big brewers. By the 1950’s, Dublin had gone from over 22 breweries to 1. Cork went from over 25 to 2, and now, even one of those has gone. And that is how everyone else now sees “the beer” in Ireland. A monoculture, owned by large international corporations. The most Irish thing about these beers is the history, and the shamrockery branding.

The Anchor Brewery, Dublin, c. 1889.

But of course, things change, and in typical Irish fashion, there were small revolutions, when forward-thinking Irish men and women sought choice and quality. In the early-to-mid 1990s, a first, small wave of Irish micro breweries made brave moves against the tide. One has to admire them, putting small, often two or three-man operations against the incumbent powers that be. For some, the introduction of staged tax rates on brewers came too late, and the likes of the Dublin Brewing Company, North King Street - who reintroduced D’Arcy’s Stout to Dublin after the the original Anchor Brewery succumbed to the onslaught of the bigger brewery in 1926 - repeated history, and could not continue to fight against the status quo. Others, like Biddy Early, fell by the wayside, as Irish people chose to stay with the brand they knew best, regardless. But some, like The Porterhouse, Franciscan Well and Carlow Brewing, thrived, a testament to their bravado and business acumen

In the last few years, a second wave has begun, with the likes of the Hooker Brewery, first bringing their pale, hoppy ale, Galway Hooker, to punters in Galway in 2006, and quickly spreading to other parts of the country (something I was very glad of, as it became my regular tipple when (frequently) out in Dublin). Even over the past year, there’s been several new breweries, including Dungarvan, Trouble and Metalman, all operated by small groups of family or friends who brewed at home, and all taking the big leap into commercial brewing. It's both a sad indication of the near-death experience of Irish brewing and a thrilling feeling of rejuvenation, that we now list 15 microbreweries on the island of Ireland, when about 20 years ago there were just three massive brewing companies present.

What these breweries have in common, is first and foremost a love of the beer, and drive to bring new tastes to the Irish drinking classes, although often with a nod towards what is considered traditional for Irish beers. It is this spirit that Beoir encourages, just as it encourages people to try them out, and see what wonderful Irish taste experiences are sitting behind the bar, or on the supermarket shelf

The main thing is, in times likes these, if you want to celebrate Irishness with an Irish beer, why not pick out a beer that has been hand-crafted, with love and pride, by a small Irish company. Give something back, help these small businesses, and enjoy something that is delicious, top quality, and actually Irish-owned.

6 comments:

Velky Al said...

It is sad to see so many breweries disappear into the mists of time, though I guess in some ways that was just indicative of the industrial revolution as a whole.

One thing though that I have never been able to find is what happened to their brewing records?

Barry M said...

Yes, you're right. Much of the losses are certainly due to industrialisation, but not all, as there were some really large breweries in Dublin till the early part of the last Century, so it's not like they fell due to the inability to keep up with production. Barnard's trilogy in four parts on the Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland has some fascinating reading about some of those breweries.

About the brewing records, one, possibly apocryphal, story that we've heard a few times has it that as Guinness took over a small brewery (as they did when the canal system opened their reach considerably) and turned it into a local bottler, they systematically removed all record of the brewery (records, advertising etc), essentially removing it from the common memory. It might be a bit of a conspiracy tale, but at the very least, I'm pretty sure Guinness must have a massive treasure trove of manuals and records from the breweries they closed.

Shit, Barnard's book are free now. I paid! :D

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

thanks for the heads up on Barnard, just downloaded them! I shall be drinking College Green’s Mollie’s Chocolate Stout tonight at 6pm down at the Bridge.

Barry M said...

It looks like the intro pages of Vol I and III are mixed up. Will have a proper look later, and compare to the versions I have. I love the illustrations and descriptions.

Beeron said...

I had a look on Bierzwerg and was pleased to see a few beers made by the Carlow Brewing Company, who are on your list.
O'Hara's red and gold and Curim wheat will certainly be on my next Bierzwerg consignment.

Barry M said...

Yeah, I like Bierzwerg. A pretty good selection of stuff (I usually order Flying Dog and Belgian stuff, the UK beers seem pretty dear).

I haven't had a Curim in ages. The Stout is well worth a test drive!

If only the Porterhouse and Dungarvan bottles would make their way here (not to mention Whitewater. I'd murder for a Clotworthy Dobbin!).