Hoppy hunting grounds
Beoir, the best Irish craft beer website, lists more than 40 microbreweries operating in this country, many offering something uniquely local and distinctly flavoursome
When I wrote my first article on beer some four years ago, there were fewer than a dozen craft brewers in the country. How things have changed. Beoir, the best Irish craft beer website, lists more than 40 microbreweries operating in this country.
Garret Connolly of Baggot Street Wines (twice winners of the National Off-Licence Association Awards Beer Specialist) says, “We are being contacted by a new brewery from somewhere in Ireland at least once a week. We now have 450 beers – and 120 of those are Irish.”
The image of the beer drinker has changed, too. Pubs such as L Mulligan Grocer in Stoneybatter (hipster central these days), serve quality food alongside craft beers.
“Five years ago, less than 1 per cent of the population drank craft beer,” says Connolly. “The market was almost exclusively made up of 25-35-year-old male graduates. Now more and more women are trying it and enjoying it.”
“We don’t notice any discernible gender difference,” says Seáneen Sullivan of L Mulligan Grocer, which has 30 beers on draft and more than 200 by the bottle. “This is not a pub for beer anoraks.”
Generally a microbrewery starts out with a core range of beers: a stout, red ale and pale ale (often like a lager with attitude). These could be described as threshold beers, similar to standard beers, but with more flavour. Some also offer a wheat beer, an IPA (India Pale Ale) and seasonal beers. Other beers are much more radical, the result of a few creative minds let loose in a brewery. The most popular “new” flavour is the oldest: hops. They have always been added to beer, but the range of hops is far greater now and they are used in much larger quantity.
Brian Short is brewer at Brown Paper Bag Project, one of the most innovative Irish “gypsy” brewers who make once-off batches at breweries across Europe. “The excessively hoppy beers can be intriguing and some get drinkers interested, but they can go too far and have a negative reaction among beer drinkers,” he says. Other more radical flavours include milk, pears, rye and sea salt.
“The categories of beer are changing daily,” says Connolly. “The possible flavours are endless and there are so many available.”
“Some of the flavourings are bit gimmicky,” says Sullivan, “but others such as cherry beer from Belgium are actually very traditional.”
“There is still a strong element of experimentation,” according to Connolly. “It is not like drinking Guinness in a pub.” Short agrees: “Drinkers are looking for new taste experiences and diversity – you need to offer those to be successful.”
Some have dismissed the growth of craft beer as a fad. Connolly disagrees: “Our sales of craft beer have gone up 400 per cent in three years. It is still less than 4 per cent of the Irish market – there is plenty of room to expand further.”
Some will certainly fail, as with all start-up small businesses, but the more successful could outgrow the 20,000 hectolitre limit set by the Government for designation as a microbrewery and therefore eligible for favourable tax treatment. We may even have a few large craft brewers such as Brew Dog in the UK or Sierra Nevada in the US. Beoir says there are 650 pubs and 350 restaurants serving local beer, although producers still battle to get their beers into pubs.
“There is no demand for them here” is the phrase constantly heard. Yet, according to Sullivan, the opposite is the case: “We find customers will travel long distances to drink here.”
Craft beer and cider is a great way to offer tourists something uniquely local. There is a bewildering range of Irish craft beers available and not all are well made. On the other hand, there are plenty of delicious complex beers with real character.
The more extreme beers will only appeal to a minority. However, the market has changed and a growing number of customers are no longer satisfied with a beer that tastes of very little.
As a newly-converted friend said to me recently, “Once you try them, there really is no going back to your old pint.”
For those seeking guidance, next week Sláinte, a new guide to Irish craft beers and ciders by Caroline Hennessy and Kristin Jensen, will be published.