Thursday, 17 March 2011

Irish beer today. Not the usual stuff.

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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.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Maybe it's not the Reinheitsgebot. Or is it?

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Last night, a friend on Beoir sent me a link to an article on The Slate, by Christian DeBenedetti, that describes the decline of German beer culture. I think it's fair to say that it's written from an American perspective, at least some of the tone is, how shall I put it, celebrating the US role in the current beer universe. Regardless, it's hard to argue with the figures, tallying as they do with those I read in the regional daily a few weeks ago. Beer consumption is on the decline in Germany, and all sorts of reasons are given in the broadsheets; the changing demographic, with the aging population naturally drinking less, but with the younger people drinking differently, not taking up the beer glass.

One thing about DeBenedetti's piece had me nodding straight away was the concept that the Reinheitsgebot is stifling German beer, much in the same way that it wiped out the rich variety of beers that existed prior to the Bavarians insisting the 'gebot be taken on as a condition of unification in 1871. I've gone on a bit about that myself, with the occasional uncharacteristic rant, but I began thinking, much as I have disliked the Reinheitsgebot (and I do think it's bollox), it's not really the law itself that irritates me, but the way it's used, and the way it has insinuated itself into the psyche of the average, beer-drinking German.

A bad workman blames his tools, and I'm beginning to think that it's easy to point to the Reinheitsgebot and say "Look! It's a straitjacket, and the German breweries are stuck in 1516! There's no innovation, and they're being left behind." For the beer aficionado, it's easy to look to the US, the UK, Sweden, Italy, all sorts of places, stroke one's chin(s) and decide that Germany is a basket case. Maybe it is. The fact is, there's masses of room for innovation, even staying within the strictures of the Reinheitsgebot. Brewers don't even have to stay within the limits if they don't want to. The thing is, they like to, which is fine, but by choice, the majority of small breweries in Germany produce the same thing as every other small brewery. A pils, a helles, a dunkel a weissbier. Why? The Reinheitsgebot doesn't make them do that.

Perhaps it's a more general societal thing. Germany is pretty stable. One might say even boring, where they need the likes of Carneval/Fasching as an almost State-sanctioned reason to dress up, go out, get drunk and make an arse of themselves. Could this stability simply be manifesting in liquid-form as the staple beer types? Are the majority of German brewers simply just playing it safe? What does this lack of innovation have to do with the Reinheitsgebot at all? I'm beginning to think nothing at all. Is it because they are afraid, or because they know the average German beer drinker likes it that way? I know it's hard to sell the idea of non-German beer to Germans, but I found that most people are like anywhere else. Once they try it, they'll be intrigued by different flavours. Without something in your hand to get them to try, you're wasting your breath, and you will get the occasional sneer of "that's not beer".

So, is it the people that are stifling change in German beer culture? Perhaps. Why? Because they believe in the Reinheitsgebot? Maybe. Would a regular person care as long as they have a tasty beer in their grubby paws? Not likely.

There is innovation though, if you know where to look. But perhaps not as much as I'd like to think. I thought it was quite damning that DeBenedetti mentions the likes of the Weyermann pilot brewery and Cologne's Braustelle, and to realise I've tried all of these. In fact, that little event organised by Braustelle  last year had most of them gathered together (and many were quite delicious). I began to wonder if DeBenedetti had been to the same event or read my blog. Is that the limit of "innovation" or rather, reaching out? No, there are others. Andreas Gaenstaller and his wonderful Affumicator, some small breweries in Berlin putting erstwhile verboten ingredients in their beers (no idea if they're any good though), new abbey beers, albeit conforming to the Reinheitsgebot. I'm sure there's more, but even with a declining number of breweries (and that it by no means new, as two decent-sized breweries closed down in the late 80s/early 90s where I live), there's a hell of a lot to get through, and these small breweries don't get the 15 minutes of fame, or longer, that the "hot" breweries of the US and UK get.

Jeff Pickthall made a good point: "at least German mediocrity is of a higher standard than British mediocrity. I'll give them that." A bit strong perhaps, but in the main, and despite the horrendous sameness that at first glance pervades the brewpubs of Germany, this country still provides the world, and the drinking classes, with some damn fine, refreshing beer. Long may it continue.