Brewing up a storm: crafty new Irish beers going down nicely
Faced with competing against the monoliths of the bar taps, Irish craft beers have been making huge progress
The craft trail: ‘There was an attempt in the 1980s to set up microbreweries, but the Irish public wasn’t ready for it. Now so many more of us have travelled and we have higher expectations’
Man has been brewing beer since some enterprising and observant soul found out that a mixture of fomented wild barley, wild yeast and rainfall produced a liquid that left one feeling “exhilarated, wonderful and blissful”, according to a 10,000-year-old Sumerian text.
Aside from the introduction of hops in the 19th century, the process of making beer and lager has hardly changed. You take malt extract, add hops, yeast and water and brew in a sterilised container.
There are tens of thousands if not millions of breweries worldwide all doing basically the same thing.
To differentiate their respective products, the big brands spend millions on marketing, making ever more outlandish and unprovable claims. Coors Light may be a taste born high in the Rockies, but it is made in Cork.
Carlsberg used to style itself “probably” the best lager in the world, but it probably isn’t. Budweiser calls itself the King of Beers, but not according to the users of ratemybeer.com, which listed five Budweiser products among the 50 worst beers in the world. These mass-market brands have millions to spend promoting their products and have completely dominated the Irish market for generations.
Faced with competing against the monoliths of the bar taps, Irish craft beers have been making huge progress in recent years. Unlike countries such as our neighbours in the UK, and Germany and Belgium, which have long retained their regional breweries, the tradition of microbreweries had died out in Ireland until, about 15 years ago, it made an impressive comeback. Most of the new Irish craft breweries have come on stream since 2009.
This week’s Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival in the RDS features 25 craft beer manufacturers, five artisan cider-makers and two new whiskey distillers, Teeling’s and the Dingle Distillery. Last year there were 13 craft beer brewers and three artisan cider makers.
The definition of a craft beer is set out in legislation. A brewery can produce up to 20,000 hectolitres per annum to qualify for tax breaks that allows it to compete given their higher costs and lower margins compared to industrial brewers.
Craft sales soaring
Sales were up 42.5 per cent last year, according to a report by Bord Bia, which predicts a bright future for the industry. They are up 40 per cent again this year, according to Séamus O’Hara, owner of the Carlow Brewing Company, which was founded in 1996 and is one of oldest and most successful microbreweries in Ireland.
This is an impressive figure, but it is minuscule in the scale of things. Craft beers accounted for 0.4 per cent of the Irish beer market last year, a figure that will rise to 0.6 per cent this year.
“There is strong momentum at the moment. It is driven by consumer demand, but we need to get the awareness levels raised, and there are still logistical challenges out there. A lot of microbreweries have limited reach. In the cities it is getting stronger,” he said.
O’Hara says the difference between craft beer and mass-market beer is that “we brew the taste in, they brew the taste out”. It is a paradox of the beer market that the more inoffensive the taste, the greater the audience seems to be. Craft beers are often stronger, too, and do not lend themselves to being drunk in large quantities. Smaller volumes mean smaller sales, but there is a growing and discerning market for such products.