Nobody called it craft beer back in the '90s. Or when the Porterhouse brew pub first opened its doors in Temple Bar serving its own beers and a range of imported US, German and Belgian ales. It was all very exotic, back then.
"We were regarded as complete eccentrics," says Oliver Hughes, who founded the Porterhouse with Liam LaHart in 1996. In those days, it was unheard of to walk into a pub in Ireland and find anything other than the usual mainstream beers on offer.
“Nobody said it would last, but here we are 20 years later.”
Last month, the Porterhouse – which has four bars in Ireland, and one in London and New York – celebrated its 20th anniversary. A lot has changed since they first started, most noticeably that everyone now seems to be talking about craft beer, and a rake of craft and brew pubs have opened around the country.
“We were the first to make a pale ale in Ireland – nobody knew what it was, or what hops were then either,” says Hughes.
They imported Erdinger and Herrnbrau and also sought out new Irish breweries, such as Galway Hooker, to add to their offerings. They made a few “me-too beers”, similar in style to the mainstream ones, which landed them in some legal trouble (one was called Weiser Buddy).
Persuading barmen back then was difficult, he says.
“Most of them were totally not interested,” in serving anything other than the usual mainstream beers. And they couldn’t understand why he wanted to put Belgian beers like Chimay or Duvel on the top shelves. Now it’s easy, he says, because more people are curious about trying different beers, and all Porterhouse bar staff are encouraged to read up on beer history.
“I was in a bar last night and there was a big sign up saying ‘craft beer’ but every beer on offer was made by a big multinational,” Hughes says.
This kind of “pretend craft” is hugely damaging to the microbrewery industry, he says. While there may be debates about what the exact definition of craft beer actually is, he says, “the global multinational brewing beer doesn’t come within any of them”.
The next few years will be make or break for many of the new Irish microbreweries. “There will be a shake-out,” he reckons. “Just because something is a craft beer doesn’t mean it’s well-brewed, that’s an issue.”
And how does he feel seeing other new craft pubs opening around the country?
“Our problem is always [being] too ahead of our time,” he says. “It’s fantastic to see others starting out, and to see other breweries with genuine love for beers. We’ve always supported others.”
Though, he adds, “it can be a little bit achingly hipster sometimes.”
So what actually makes a good craft pub? We asked some of the owners and experts.
57 The Headline, Dublin
"We have no mainstream beers," says Geoff Carty, who runs 57 the Headline on Clanbrassil Street in Dublin with his wife Máire Ní Mhaolie.
“It probably hurt us at the start but it stands to us now.” 57 the Headline has been open for 2½ years, and has 24 different taps, including two of their own new house beers, called Two Sides. We’ve had all sorts of reactions over the years [to not serving mainstream beers]. Some people think you’re lying, some people think you don’t want to serve them, some people think you’re taking the mickey.”
But a big part of being a good craft pub, he believes, is having “go-to” beers, “like Hooker, Metalman or O’Hara’s”, which are good beginner beers.
“You want to make people feel comfortable,” he says, “you don’t want to scare people off, so if someone asks we explain that we only serve beer from Irish microbreweries, and make a few suggestions.”
For Carty, the definition of a craft beer pub is simple. “We don’t deal with macro.”
The Oslo, Salthill, Galway
"We try not to be elitist," says Niall Walsh of Galway Bay Brewery. They opened their first brew pub in Salthill, Galway in 2009, called the Oslo. Back then, he says, "every bar just had the same product – it's like if every restaurant had the same dishes."
Galway Bay has rapidly expanded over the last few years, now with 11 bars, including Against the Grain and The Black Sheep in Dublin, and The Salt House in Galway. While most of them have a purely craft offering, others stock some macro or mainstream beers.
Having staff behind you is key, says Walsh. “We have a new programme where staff will come to the brewery and get to make beer and see how the whole thing works.”
A good craft beer pub comes down to having a great selection of quality beers, he reckons. And no TVs, he adds.
L Mulligan Grocer, Dublin
"We had our dissenters initially but the overall reception was positive," says Adam Kilbane, manager of Mulligan's, which has been open since 2010 and offers a wide range of rotating Irish and international craft beers. He's noticed tastes are changing over the past few years, with people more keen to experiment. It used to be all about hops, he says "but now you'll see a resurgence in respect for a really well-made lager, a perfectly balanced pale ale or a big treat like a barley wine."
As for the term “craft pub”, he’s not too fond of it. “We try to offer something more than just beer – an experience to our customers through our passion for our products be it beer, whiskey or food.”
A really good pub, he says, is about personality.
Simon Lambert & Sons, Wexford
Yellow Belly, whose brewery is based in the cellar of Lambert & Sons pub in Wexford, is celebrating its first anniversary this year. "There's been really enthusiastic response from locals here," says head brewer Declan Nixon. You'll find six Yellow Belly beers on tap there, with seven other craft rotation taps plus some macro beers.
Nixon, who used to work in a pub, believes craft beer is changing the culture of drinking. “It’s become more of a tasting experience as opposed to a getting-drunk experience,” he says. “People are spending more but drinking a lot less.”