A heads-up on a tasty new brew

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

Eight Degrees Brewing, a new craft brewery in Cork, is proving there is a market for homegrown bottled beers with a distinctive taste, writes JOHN WILSON

OVER THE PAST few years, our beer-drinking habits have been undergoing a transformation. Whereas once we were content to consume the very limited range of beers on offer in our off-licences and pubs, a growing band of consumers has started to look for something more interesting to drink.

It began with the importation of foreign beers, but more recently, it is the Irish micro-breweries that have started to make their presence felt.

The flag-bearers for many years were the Porterhouse in Dublin and the Franciscan Brewery in Cork, who sold their beer mainly through their own pubs, and O’Hara’s in Carlow, which ploughed a lonely (but very successful) path.

It’s not that the enthusiasm wasn’t there; the Irish Craft Brewers (now Beoir) formed a nucleus of aficionados where potential brewers could test their skills. But few had the funds to start commercial brewing. If they did get up and running, they still had to win over a consumer used to drinking beers designed to appeal to everyone, but frequently tasting of very little.

It was difficult to gain access to pubs, and those that did often didn’t sell very well. Many did not have the equipment to bottle their beer, and were unable to deal with off-licences. But things appear to have changed greatly.

Last spring I visited and interviewed most of the new Irish micro-brewers. This year, I spoke to the people behind one of the new companies, Eight Degrees, to see how they were faring.

Cameron Wallace, an accountant from Australia and Scott Baigent, an engineer from New Zealand, were lured to Ireland by their Irish wives. Having trained in Berlin, they bought some second-hand brewing equipment from the Carlow Brewing Company, and set up Eight Degrees Brewing in Mitchelstown, Co Cork.

Business is going very well, with sales topping 150,000 bottles within the first year. They now have listings in more than 100 off-licences, pubs and restaurants.

Even the first few months of 2012, traditionally the dead period, has been hectic. “We thought February was going to be a really quiet month, but it has turned out to be one of our best so far,” says Wallace. “We are getting five to 10 new customers a week, it is incredible. We know it won’t continue forever but while it lasts it is fantastic.”

Bottled beer still forms the majority of sales for Eight Degrees, but draught orders are catching up. Sales in restaurants are also good. “Getting our beer into restaurants has been a great way of getting new fans. Joe Macken of JoBurger, for example, now lists the beers in all his restaurants. People try them out there and then go out and buy them – consumers as well as other restaurants and publicans.

“I guess an unexpected benefit of the recession is that pubs are willing to try something new,” says Wallace, “but the key is they have to push it. In some places it hasn’t worked because they are not converts themselves. If the manager and the staff are fans, then it goes really, really well.”

Baigent agrees. “When the staff are behind you it’s a beautiful thing, it becomes a point of pride with them to offer something that is not available in the pub next door. We are finding a lot of publicans who have never tried something new in their lives are now starting to look at which taps are not performing, and giving us a go. If we are the only micro-brew in a pub, we are winning over new customers to the whole craft beer industry. It is not like a mass-market beer where you have a huge brand awareness and a marketing budget. The publicans have to hand out samples and get customers started.”

There have been a few disasters. “The problem with brewing is, if you make a mistake, it tends to be a big one,” says Wallace. “Our very first real brew (after lots of trial batches) was horrible. We had miscalculated the hops, and it was unbelievably bitter. We hoped maybe it would mellow out, but it didn’t. We had to dump the whole batch and start again.

“Another time, we ordered a huge batch of about 40,000 labels from our printer. When we stuck on the first label, we realised they were upside-down, and couldn’t be turned around for technical reasons. Thankfully our local supplier in Cork was able to rewind them and sort it out for us.”

They have quadrupled their capacity recently, with some new tanks, and have 165 kegs on order.

“We are in and out of the bank like a yo-yo, but our local bank have been very good to us, and very understanding. We get a sense that they really want us to succeed.”

At the moment, like most craft-brewers, Eight Degrees offers three beers, a pale ale, a red ale and a stout, with the occasional once-off special. At Christmas, they released A Winter’s Ale. This was an experimental brew, made with local spice producer Green Saffron. “It worked really well,” says Baigent. “We had no idea how it would turn out. It was 7.5 per cent alcohol, and very different, with quite raisined flavours that were balanced out nicely by the spices. Next up is a lager, a Bohemian Pilsner, but we don’t know what to call it yet. It should be ready for Easter and we might even have a name for it then.”

Overall it has been a hectic year, expanding so quickly, but both Wallace and Baigent have enjoyed it hugely.

They both love the brewing process. “It has been crazy but a lot of fun,” says Wallace. “Having two people who get on means you have someone to share both your problems and your successes.”

Howling Gale Ale (Eight Degrees) 5% about €2 for a 33cl bottleHowling Gale has plenty of flavour, with an attractive maltiness mid-palate and a lovely refreshing hoppy note kicking in on the finish. If you are trying to move on from lager, this would be a good place to start.

Sunburnt Irish Red (Eight Degrees) 5% about €2 for a 33cl bottleMild and fruity with light caramel, a lightly hoppy dry finish, this is a very pleasant easy-drinking beer with nice weight on the palate.

Knockmealdown Porter (Eight Degrees) 5% about €2 for a 33cl bottleA very attractive beer, medium-bodied but refreshing, with some coffee and slightly sweet malt, finishing well. A good session beer for those who like stout.

Eight Degrees beers are available in off-licences throughout the country, including O’Briens, Redmond’s, Ranelagh; McHugh’s, Kilbarrick Road and Malahide Road; Morton’s, Ranelagh; Baggot Street Wines; Ardkeen, Waterford; Bradley’s, Cork; Wine Centre, Kilkenny; Desmond’s Next Door, Limerick; Cases Wine Warehouse, Galway; and Supervalu, Mitchelstown, or online from thebeerclub.ieor drinkstore.ie.

See eightdegrees.iefor a full list of stockists.

The All-Ireland Craft Beerfest is taking place this weekend at George’s Dock in the IFSC, Dublin 1. Admission is €10 and includes a souvenir beer glass. See irishcraftbeerfestival.com

Wine for St Patrick's Day

Dirk Niepoort, one of the leading producers in the Douro Valley, claims no connection to Ireland. However, some years ago he began producing a special label for each country that imported his wine, featuring a cartoon of some sort. For Ireland, he commissioned Fintan Taite, a freelance illustrator, to design a label. The cartoon is the artist’s take on Saint Patrick and the snake. The 2009 vintage of Sásta has very nicely-balanced spicy dark fruits and a dry finish. Drink alongside red or white meats; bacon and cabbage would be good. Sásta 2009 is available at €14.50