Rising in the yeast

Sat, Mar 26, 2011, 00:00

ARTISAN BREWERIES:The multinational beer companies might dominate our pubs, but a growing generation of microbrewers are bringing local variety to the market. JOHN WILSONgoes on a tour of our top small breweries

AT ONE TIME, Ireland had a vibrant regional beer industry, with each town or county proud to drink the local produce. Sadly this died out in the 20th century as larger brewers grew at the expense of the independents.

It seems that we were partly responsible for the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) in the UK, which was founded when four English beer-lovers travelled to Ireland in the late 1960s and were horrified to see what had happened to the brewing industry here.

The micro-brewery movement that swept North America, the UK and Scandinavia never took root in Ireland. There was a false dawn in the 1990s but most of the new companies foundered. However, in the past few years, off-licences and pubs have noted a surge of interest in imported craft beers. Our own craft beer movement has been gathering momentum and finally seems ready to burst forth with a range of eclectic handmade beers offering real flavour. And pubs, thirsty for business, seem ready to try them.

Tom Dalton of Dungarvan Brewing sees a big change. “The consumer is beginning to realise that there can be more to beer. They understand what we are trying to do with bottle-conditioned beers and are very willing to give them a try. We don’t see it as something new, but bringing back a tradition.’’

Kay O’Hara of the Carlow Brewing Company agrees. “The difference between us and the big brands is we do beers with flavour; people are much more educated and are now looking for something with flavour. The consumer is now much more thoughtful about what they consume, both in food and drink. This is great for us, and people like us.”

The last piece in the jigsaw is surprising. Everyone in the micro-brewing industry is happy to acknowledge a debt to Brian Cowen – as minister for finance, he introduced a lower rate of duty for small breweries, largely due to pressure from the Porterhouse. “We couldn’t compete otherwise,” says Cuilan Loughnane, “I just wouldn’t survive.”

Consistency is the big problem for the craft brewer. Consumers usually demand it, and it can be difficult to achieve. Setting up a small brewery is not cheap, costing from €75,000 to €100,000. Last year Loughnane made two brews a week, which is break-even. This year he plans three to four, and hopes to turn a small profit. Installing a bottling-line is expensive with most craft brewers shipping to the UK for bottling

“Beer is like wine was twenty years ago,” says Niall Walsh of Bay Brewing, “when Blue Nun and Mateus Rosé was all you could get.” Not all are “session beers” for sculling back in large quantities.

Some are best drunk with food, others have much higher levels of alcohol, approaching those of wine, beers to drink by the glass over a newspaper, rather than a skin-full on a Friday night. But most have alcohol content of between 4 and 6 per cent. To me the greatest pleasure is being able to drink local flavoursome beers with real character. It makes drinking beer so much more fun. Watch out for the revolution.


The Porterhouse was one of the first brewpubs in Ireland. It’s first outlet opened in Bray, Co Wicklow in 1989, and it is now the most successful, with six outlets including one each in London, New York and Shanghai. It can claim credit for inspiring a generation of craft brewers. Oliver Hughes is the marketing brain, while his cousin Liam LaHart looks after operations.

Hughes, from Bray, fell in love with beer as a law student in the UK. “I was a student so I liked beer,” he jokes. In fact he brewed his own and sold it to fellow students. “But I also could see there was a culture behind beer in England, something that was missing back in Ireland. Here we possessed a culture through Guinness, but nobody else, and Guinness had become a giant monolith; I loved the idea of a rural brewery in, say, the Cotswolds, just supplying pubs in a radius of 15-20 miles; I bought the Michael Jackson book on beer, a phenomenal book that got me hooked. I learnt about the Anchor Steam brewery in San Francisco, and other little breweries all over the world. I saw a rich, rich culture, and thought I would love to do this in Ireland.”

The two were involved in several abortive brewing efforts, including Dempseys in the 1980s and later Harty’s in Blessington. Both enterprises tried to supply pubs and off-licences, but that didn’t work.

“The big boys were very very competitive, and at times hostile – they didn’t want to see any small suppliers in the market, which I think was extremely foolish of them.” Unable to compete in the open market, the cousins set up their own pub. This was the key to their success.

“You are insulated from the predatory tactics of avaricious companies. You create your own shop window, and talk directly to your customers. We seduce people from the more commercial beers, and offer them more flavour; we are constantly pleased with their reaction. I am a believer in flavour, flavour in anything.”

The Porterhouse advertising is irreverent, classic guerrilla marketing. They lay claim to be the world’s largest genuine Irish brewery (the others being owned by multinationals). They made headlines worldwide by taking on the giant Anheuser-Busch, with a beer called Weiserbuddy, following that up with “Probably. The best lager in the world”, taking a pot-shot at a well-known Danish brew.

However, beneath the witty slogans there are some serious beers, packed with character and real flavour.

“When people try our beers and still prefer the mass-market versions, I tell them: ‘When you are used to mince, steak can taste a bit strange.’ But we don’t take a high moral ground – I appreciate that Ireland is used to mass-produced beers, so some of our beers are very commercial, but we also make some very good beers and have a bit of fun too.”

They brew 10 beers in total, including two lighter lagers, Temple Bräu and Chiller, and the excellent refreshing full-bodied Hersbrucker, full of hoppy flavours. The Porterhouse Red is a traditional Irish red ale, which will be familiar to Smithwicks and Killians drinkers, but with a lovely, creamy sweetness. The Plain Porter is clean and lightly bitter, the Oyster Stout fuller, but smooth, and the Wrassler a rich, powerful stout with complex flavours of coffee, caramel and hops with a bitter, dry finish.

Hughes is justifiably proud of it. “It is not the kind of beer you scull back pint after pint, but a contemplation beer, to be sipped slowly as you read the newspaper. Budweiser is for Sun readers, Wrassler needs The Irish Times,” he quips. “We have more in common with the artisan food producers and farmers of west Cork and other areas than we do with the big breweries.”

He has moved on to whiskey now, and has recently purchased a building in Dingle, Co Kerry with that in mind.

“I would love to see traditional whiskey distilling revived in Ireland – again we had the culture, and there is a huge interest worldwide in premium spirits as well as premium beers.”

Porterhouse beers are now available in bottles as well as in their various pubs. porterhousebrewco.com


This was one of the very first brewpubs in Ireland, founded in 1998, and the first in Cork. The brewer is Russell Garet, a New Yorker, who had made beer there and elsewhere in the US. The beers are only available on draught. Over-the-counter sales are responsible for about 30 per cent of production, and customers can see the working brewery out the back of the pub.

The company has plans to move to a larger industrial premises but the recession put paid to that. I get the feeling that Russell is happier in the thick of things in the pub. Currently, the brewery is at full capacity, and is producing around 3,000 kegs of beer a year.

It also sells to about 40 pubs in Cork and a dozen in Dublin. Business received an unexpected boost in 2009 when Beamish closed its doors. Pubs used to serving Beamish Red Ale quickly switched to Franciscan Rebel Red, its most popular beer, accounting for 40 per cent of production. “Freshness is everything to us,” says Russell. “We filter our beers, but never micro-filter or pasteurise, to keep the flavour.”

They produce five beers, including an excellent wheat beer and the intensely hoppy Purgatory. They are currently offering cask-conditioned beers at weekends until the end of April. Franciscan runs three beer festivals each year, the Cask beer festival from February 11th-13th, and the Easter Festival, an essential event for every beer geek.


The Carlow Brewing Company was founded in 1996 by brothers Eamonn and Seamus O’Hara. It is now run by Seamus and his wife Kay O’Hara. It ranks as one of the largest microbreweries. In addition to making its own beer, it produces own-label brands for both Marks Spencer and Aldi.

In 2009, it moved into a new larger premises in Bagenalstown in Co Carlow, but expansion has been so rapid that it has now taken over a section of the warehouse that it originally intended to rent out. Space is a constant worry for brewers, both floor space and tank-space, as a beer can take up to three weeks or more to be ready for consumption. The company employ 10 people, and makes five beers. Exports are thriving, with sales throughout Scandinavia, along with Italy, Russia, the US and Canada.

O’Hara’s beers are all good, usually with enough flavour to satisfy the beer-lover, without intimidating the rookie drinker. The newly released Leann Folláin Extra Irish Stout is full-flavoured, smooth with lots of coffee flavours, but the highlight for me is the Irish Pale Ale, a deliciously refreshing zesty lightly hopped beer.



Dungarvan, Co Waterford

This is a small, very new brewery set up by two beer aficionados, Cormac O’Dwyer and Tom Dalton, with their respective partners Jen and Claire. Reaction so far has been very positive. “We started off with the idea of making what we liked ourselves. Then we tried it out on our friends,” says Dalton.

Located in a small industrial park in Dungarvan, the focus here is currently on three bottled beers, although draught is also available. All are unfiltered and bottle-conditioned, and well worth trying. The Helvic Gold Blonde Ale is a delicious, fresh, flavoursome beer, and the Black Rock stout is a wonderful, traditional Irish stout that could bring tears to the eye of older drinkers.

Dungarvan Brewing Company, Westwood Business Park, Dungarvan, dungarvanbrewingcompany.com


This is the most recent addition to the craft beer scene. The brewery is currently being constructed in Waterford. In the meantime, it has released a Pale Ale, made in the White Gypsy Brewery in Templemore. I haven’t had the opportunity to try it yet, but reports are very good.

Metalman is the brainchild of Gráinne Walsh and her partner Tim Barber. Having spent a couple of years abroad, they returned to “a drought of interesting beer”, says Walsh. They started making their own beer and came across Irish Craft Brewers (now Beoir), which has been a great support with their new initiative. The Pale Ale was launched in both Dublin and Waterford in March, and is currently available in Revolution in Waterford, the Victoria in Tramore, and the Bull and Castle and L Mulligan, Grocer in Dublin. The aim is to build a local following in Waterford, with the release of seasonal beers to test the market. There are also plans to make a barley wine.



This brand new enterprise was founded by Cameron Wallace, an accountant from Australia, and Scott Baigent, an engineer from New Zealand. When I visited, they were cooing over their newly delivered bottling machine. Former flatmates, one has an Irish wife, the other a fiancée, which explains their presence here. “We are living the dream. You wake up in the morning and you have a smile on your face. We do also like to drink good beer,” they say.

They plan an ambitious half-million bottles in their first year. Both trained in Berlin, having started up brewing their own beer. They are using second-hand brewing equipment, bought from the Carlow Brewing Company and hope to have their first beer ready for the Franciscan Easter Beer festival.


The Bay Brewing Company is the brainchild of chef Niall Walsh and Jason O’Connell. It originally started as a gourmet pizza company in 2004, evolving into a brewpub by 2009, when they launched the brewery.

Currently, it only supplies its own pubs, of which there are four, including three in Galway, and its most recent venture, Against The Grain on Wexford Street in Dublin. This apparently is one of only three pubs in the capital that doesn’t serve Guinness. The Dublin pub serves a “beer bat” taster tray of three glasses of beer, which is proving very successful, and it holds a Meet The Brewer tasting event every Friday. The company’s brewpub, the Oslo in Salthill, serves a range of other microbrews on draught, and a massive range of imported beers. It will hold the second Brewers on the Bay festival this May.

TROUBLE BREWING Allenwood, Co Kildare

Founded last year, Trouble Brewing is the brainchild of Stephen Clinch, Paul O’Connor and Thom Prior, who does the brewing. Prior, a science graduate, studied at Heriot Watt in Edinburgh, as did many of the microbrewers.

The company currently makes two beers, available in keg only, a Golden Ale, and Dark Arts, a porter. I enjoyed the Ór Golden Ale, medium-bodied but refreshing, with a mouth-watering hoppy bite. However, sources tell me that the porter, the only stout in this country that has not been nitrogenated to give a creamy head, is the one to go for. “They are designed not to challenge too much,” says Clinch. “We want to bring people into craft brewing.” Currently the brews are available in Against The Grain and L Mulligan, Grocer in Dublin, and the Oslo in Galway.



Messrs Maguire can claim to be Dublin’s only onsite brewpub. The pub and restaurant are in two 19th-century buildings on Burgh Quay, with four stories overlooking the river Liffey. Messrs Maguire was set up in 1989, but more recently ceased brewing for a year or two. However, they have employed Melissa Camire (above), an experienced brewer from the US, who is making some very interesting beers. Visitors to Messrs Maguire can try a tasting mat of their range. Camire
also offers beer tasting evenings for groups, including tours of the brewery, visible from the street. They currently brew five beers, all good, but the most interesting is a delicious medium-bodied lightly malty Bock beer. Camire also promises some once-off seasonal beers in the near future.

Messrs Maguire, Burgh Quay, Dublin 2, messrsmaguire.ie


Galway Hooker was founded by first cousins Aidan Murphy and Ronan Brennan. Murphy does the brewing, Brennan the sales and delivery. Murphy’s interest began with a spell as an exchange student in Germany. This was followed by a
spell in a brewpub in San Francisco on a J1 visa, while studying food and science technology in UCC. Brennan’s background was in hotel management. Murphy did a master’s in brewing at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.
They make just one beer, Galway Hooker, an Irish Pale Ale, which is only available on draught. In a strange twist, the beer is made in Roscommon, not Galway. The name came from an online competition. “We have never had a problem
selling to pubs really,” says Murphy, “They have nothing to lose. The problem is selling it in pubs. But people are coming to us now, and we just cannot supply them at the moment. We have only one guy [Brennan] doing sales as delivery. It
is all about word of mouth.” They acknowledge a debt to Russell Garet of the Franciscan Well Brewery in Cork, who gave them lots of help at the start. Galway Hooker is a wonderfully fresh, lightly floral ale with plenty of citrus notes, and a pleasing light hoppy finish. Murphy is happy to describe it as a gateway beer, with more flavour than a lager, but not as
intimidating as the more full-bodied ales. From May onwards it will start to produce bottled beer.



Ballyferriter, Co Kerry This is a small operation based in Kerry that makes two beers, both cask-conditioned ales, Cúl Dorcha (Dark Corner) and Beal Bán (White Mouth), which are named after local beaches. It has been in operation since 2008, and its products are currently only available on draught in two local pubs. However, there are plans to bottle in the near future.


The Porterhouse will hold the Independent Irish Beer and Whiskey Festival from March 24th to April 3rd. The Fransiscan Brewery in Cork will hold its annual Easter Beer Festival on April 23rd and 24th. Most of Ireland’s microbrewers bring along a cask of something interesting to show. The Olso in Galway will host the Brewers on the Bay festival from April 30th to May 1st.