Changing tastes: the rise and rise of craft beers

There has never been so much consumer choice in the beer market – and if craft beers are too expensive for your liking, a fair this weekend will show you how to brew your own

There has never been so much consumer choice in the beer market. An unlikely partnership is at the heart of 'The 5 Lamps' micro brewery based in the Liberties, Dublin. Video: Darragh Bambrick

Mon, Feb 3, 2014, 09:42

In the early 1980s, consumers were not exactly spoiled for choice when it came to beer – requests for anything more exotic than Guinness, Harp, Tennent’s or Smithwick’s were invariably met with raised eyebrows and hard stares. Things couldn’t be more different today, with some off-licences stocking more than 500 brands of beer catering for pockets deep and shallow.

Some people were ahead of the game. Long before it was profitable or popular, Pearse Lyons was Ireland’s only postgraduate with both an MA and PhD in brewing. Such qualifications could not be obtained in Ireland, despite our long-established and far-reaching reputation in the drinks industry, so he had to travel to get them.

Coming from Dundalk, the home of Harp, and from a long line of coopers. Lyons found the drinks business a natural fit, first in the brewing industry and then with Irish Distillers.

In 1980 he went to the United States. Once bitten by the can-do spirit of his adopted country, he set up Alltech, an animal nutrition company.

It is not such a stretch, he says, from whiskey to supplements for cattle and pigs. They all involve nature’s great catalyst, enzymes. He has built Alltech into a successful multinational, but his first love was brewing.

In 1999 he bought the former Lexington Brewing Company in, Kentucky, where Alltech has its headquarters. “I felt like I was 26 again,” he remembers. The brewery is now run by his son Mark.

He believes microbreweries have to be “small, have to be unique and they have to have a story”. In the case of Lexington, the uniqueness comes from the ageing of Kentucky Ale in bourbon barrels. Kentucky makes 95 per cent of all bourbon in the United States.

Alltech is the organiser of the second annual International Craft Brews and Food Fair in the Convention Centre Dublin. The first one last summer was evidently a success, given the relatively short turnaround for its follow-up. Lyons is expecting a crowd of 5,000-6,000 people through the doors of the Convention Centre this Friday and Saturday.

Craft beer fairs are proliferating because there are enough microbreweries to make it happen, and the public have become interested. This one will include 16 international distributors.

A highlight of next weekend will be the Dublin Cup, a competition for the best beer at the fair. It was won last year by Co Antrim’s Hilden Brewing Company for its beer Twisted Hop.

“If you’d have asked me five years ago would craft beer have a future in Ireland, I would have said you were out of your mind,” he says. “Guinness, Heineken, Budweiser – what chance did craft beers have?”


Change in the air
Change is happening incrementally but surely. Dr Lyons was struck by a comment made by a barmaid in Donegal two months ago when he asked what beers she had. “You can have the boring beers or you can have the interesting beers,” came the response. The same sentiments were echoed by a barmaid in the Lough Eske Hotel where he was staying.

“I’m amazed and delighted,” he says.

The rise in popularity of Irish microbreweries has given consumers a choice they didn’t even know existed 10 years ago. According to Beoir.org, the website for craft beer aficionados, 13 new microbreweries were set up in Ireland last year.

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