Irish craft beer goes mainstream

With their ‘achingly hip’ ales, small brewers have created a mini industry. Now big players want to be part of the success story

I'm just outside Nassau Street, at the edge of Trinity College Dublin, when the tipsiness takes hold. Craft beer is my demographic's typical drug of choice, and Oliver Hughes – barrister, craft brewer, publican and founder of the Porterhouse craft-brew company – has suggested that we do a tasting.

“I always want to do a tasting,” says his head brewer, Peter Mosley.

We’re sitting in one of his bars, drinking tiny sample glasses of beer, while Mosley sits at the next table, poring over blueprints for the Porterhouse’s new Glasnevin brewery with two English consultants. They’re discussing mash drums and boiling kettles as Hughes tells me about the early days of independent brewing in Ireland and small doses of beer accumulate in my system.

The Porterhouse’s need for a new brewery is a sign of the times. The craft beer explosion means the company, which has eight bars, is unable to meet demand, and Mosley is itching for spare capacity with which to make experimental brews. “It’s like ‘Can I? Can I?’ all the time,” he says. “And it’s whether Oliver will let me.”


Hughes laughs. He describes Porterhouse Red, an ale we’re about to taste, as “a nice, well-brewed, sessionable craft beer, 4.2 per cent, caramel malt, a bit of crystal malt, chocolate malt, wheat malt”.

Hughes discovered microbreweries – and got a part-time job at one – while he was studying in England in the 1980s. Michael Jackson's World Guide to Beer was his "most thumbed book ever", he says, and when he returned home he started a brewery called Harty's. This is bound to work in Ireland, he told himself. "But microbrewing in the 1980s? God almighty."

‘We were naive’

He laughs. “We were in 50 or 60 pubs . . . but we were naive. I was only 24 or 25. Publicans didn’t pay their bills.” Some of the bigger brands encouraged publicans to destock craft beers at this time, he alleges.

Hughes came to the conclusion that he needed his own pub. He launched the Porterhouse Brewing Company with his publican cousin Liam LaHart – “The deal was, I filled the bar and he served them” – first in Bray, Co Wicklow, in 1989, then in Temple Bar, in Dublin, in 1996, and on Nassau Street in 2004.

He later discovered that other publicans took bets on how long they could last without stocking Guinness. “The longest was six months. The shortest was two days.”

They describe their early customers as radicals, people who liked the idea of not having a Guinness tap. Hughes and Mosley thought of them less as customers and more as members, they say.

We taste a “fruity” pale ale. “Bandwagon jumping?” says Mosley, mischievously, referring to the current popularity of pale ales. “Not at all,” says Hughes. “We were doing pale ales before anyone.” In those days people thought they were weird, he says. “Now, of course, they’re achingly hip.”

Craft beer has been achingly hip for a while. Beer drinkers are newly aware of a large range of styles and a plethora of craft-beer pubs, and they use words such as “hoppy” and “sessionable”.

Critics point out that craft beer is costlier – a typical 500ml bottle of craft beer costs €3.50, compared with €2 for a can of Heineken – and higher in alcohol, at 5 or 6 per cent, compared with 4.3 per cent for most popular brands in Ireland.

Aficionados of craft beers note that we actually have a beer culture now.

"Before, you didn't even ask what people were drinking. You just put in the order" for the usual, says Caroline Hennessy, one of the authors of Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer, whose spouse, Scott Baigent, is a founder of Eight Degrees Brewing, in Co Cork. "Now people are having conversations with the barman about beer . . . Twenty years ago in Ireland if you were to swirl wine around in your glass you would have been seen as the most pretentious git. That changed. A similar change is happening with beer."

‘Boring yellow fizz’

This change has been a long time coming. The British have had a

since the 1970s, and the American microbrewing scene exploded in the 1980s, but the Irish have been remarkably susceptible to the lure of less flavourful, mass-market beers – “boring yellow fizz”, as Hennessy calls them.

As craft brewers tell it, they were further hindered by aggressively competitive big brewers. "From what I understand it was pretty clinical," says Gráinne Walsh, who with Tim Barber founded the Metalman Brewing Company, in Waterford. It's a widely held belief among craft brewers that in those days the established brands incentivised publicans to keep craft beers out. They said, "You stock them or you stock us," according to Walsh. "That crucified the industry at the time."

The only survivors from the 1990s, she observes, either owned their own pubs – like the Porterhouse and, in Cork, Franciscan Well (now owned by Molson Coors) – or were producing largely for export, like the Carlow Brewing Company, run by Séamus O'Hara. "It was easier to get O'Hara's in Italy than in Ireland," says Walsh.

The beer boom in Ireland is partly down to a tax incentive begun by Brian Cowen. In 2005, as minister for finance, he introduced a rebate for brewers who produced fewer than 20,000 hectolitres a year. (In 2011 the Craft Brewers of Ireland created an ale called Brian's Brew in tribute.) Last year the cut-off point for microbreweries went up to 30,000 hectolitres, and this year's Budget allows breweries to hang on to the tax rather than pay it and wait for it to be returned to them as a rebate.

“The 2005 budget made it viable to be a microbrewery in Ireland,” says Hennessy. After that “the industry took off like a rocket”.

Sixty-three microbreweries

Before the rebate Ireland had three microbreweries. It now has at least 63, 22 of which started last year. Their collective output is expected to rise by 70 per cent this year. Craft brewing still accounts for only about 2 per cent of the market, but that share is growing, and craft brewers point to the 12 per cent share that American microbreweries have in the United States as a measure of its potential.

Many of the current crop of brewers were once part of a small, close-knit community. They tell of the travels in North America or Europe during which they first tasted high-quality microbrews – and of returning to find that Ireland had none.

There were some hotbeds of beer appreciation, such as the group, some of whose members began to brew their own. "We used to rock up to the [meetings at] the Bull and Castle [a Dublin pub] every third Thursday with our laboriously and lovingly produced beer," says Gráinne Walsh, who used to work in IT.

“In 2010 I wrote a business plan. We spent a week working at a brewery in the UK as skivvies and helpers, to put away any glamorous notions we might have had that running a brewery would be easy . . . and we put the numbers on paper . . . It encouraged me to hand in my notice, to my mother’s dismay, and start Metalman in 2011.”

Metalman was, along with Eight Degrees, among the first post-rebate breweries – the first was Galway Hooker – and there were, says Caroline Hennessy, only a dozen or so microbreweries at the first Irish Craft Beer Festival, in 2011. Now, she admits, there may be "a bit of a goldrush mentality", but she thinks that, based on the size of the market elsewhere, there is still room for growth.

It does seem to be more than a fad. Marketers see it a part of a wider trend of consumers favouring small, local, more personal brands. There are several craft-beer pubs, and craft options are no longer a rarity in even the most traditional pubs.

Big brewers fight back

At my local off-licence,

, Mark Coyle tells me that the microbrewed beer regularly outsells mainstream beers and that the Irish beers sell best of all. “The guy that came in and bought a bottle of craft beer with his six-pack of Heineken is no longer bothering with the six-pack,” he says.

The big brewers are fighting back in various ways. Budweiser's Super Bowl ad this year lampooned effete, fussy craft beers – Budweiser is the bete noire of beer connoisseurs – and some craft brewers contend that "tap blocking" is going on, with large brewers providing incentives for publicans not to take craft beers. ("That is not something we do," says Jennifer English of Diageo. )

More recently, however, big brewers have been embracing the craft concept, producing what Oliver Hughes refers to as “crafty beers”: microbrew-style beers marketed with hipster-friendly ads featuring beards and vinyl and names like Hop House 13, produced by Guinness, and Cute Hoor, made by Heineken.

Craft-beer enthusiasts find this amusing, for the most part. Do ordinary punters mistake these for craft beers? “Absolutely,” says John Duffy, a founder of “Just by sheer presence – you’ll see the big red ‘13’ on the taps and the smiley beardy people in the ads.” The big brewers “know what they’re doing. “I don’t think they see the current growth of craft beer as a threat. I think it’s more that they see it as an opportunity, that the market is more open to new things . . . In the western world people just aren’t drinking as much beer as they used to, so as a mass producer you’ll see your figures going down . . . Creating new products is a way of addressing that.”

Jennifer English, who is Diageo’s marketing director for lager and ales, rejects the notion that all of its brands are mainstream and that the beer renaissance is somehow happening in reaction to or without the participation of the big brewers. When I call the emergence of microbreweries a “David and Goliath story” she says, “I think you might be misperceiving us as the Goliath.”

Now, says English, consumers “are looking for something more authentic, more grounded and more passionate . . . After a period of hubris and a bit of bling . . . people just wanted to rediscover what was real.”

She rejects narrow definitions of “craft beer” and is shocked at the suggestion that there is anything inauthentic about Diageo brands such as Smithwick’s and Guinness, brands that she says have survived “penal laws” and “world wars”. “Just because you’re big doesn’t mean you have no claim to authenticity.” Anyway, she says, “Smithwick’s is 15 times smaller than Samuel Adams,” which, she observes, is considered a craft beer in the United States.

The battle over classification is tricky. For microbrewers, hearing Diageo aspire to craft status must be like listening to Bertie Ahern declare himself a socialist. Gráinne Walsh is a member of the recently established Independent Craft Brewers of Ireland, which aims to highlight the differences between microbreweries – in other words, it says, those producing fewer than 30,000 hectolitres a year – and "industrial beers".

It plans to create a logo for the former, “to indicate that they are an independently owned brewery producing in Ireland on a craft scale”.

‘Crafty beers’

Caroline Hennessy suggests that “crafty beers” can backfire on big brewers, by acting as a gateway to the real thing. Eight Degrees, she says, has discovered that where Hop House 13 was put in bars, sales of its Howling Gale ale actually went up.

But is the quality of Irish craft beer staying strong? “It’s inevitable when you get a sudden spike in interest in a certain industry that you get people entering the market who possibly have no business being there,” says Gráinne Walsh, who recently upgraded Metalman’s brewery.

So are there operators who think they’ll jump on the bandwagon and make a lot of money? She laughs. “I don’t know where they got that idea. And there are others who think of it more as a hobby than a business . . . There’s room for all kinds of breweries, but there will be people who close down.”

Oliver Hughes agrees that there will be “some rationalisation”. But he thinks, in general, that the number of breweries will grow. As one of the pioneers, he can’t believe how long people have taken to realise what a viable, high-employment business craft brewing can be. “I’ve been singing this song for 30 years,” he says. “Why did it take so long for people to cop this on?”

John Duffy of thinks that the future for craft breweries is as strong local businesses. “People have asked is this sustainable,” he says. “My line has always been that it’s a renormalisation of the way Irish brewing used to be, before the 20th century. The 20th century was the aberration. I reckon there’s room for 100 breweries no problem. Look at the US or Denmark or Britain. I think the secret is to be local, to be the regional brewery or the town brewery, and not to overexpand.”

As a consumer with high standards, Duffy welcomes this boom. He has even been known to drink a Smithwick’s Pale Ale, which he says is “not a bad beer”.

“The dream back in 2007 was to be able to walk into any pub and be able to find something you actually wanted to drink on tap,” he says. “We’ve achieved what we were trying to do.” He pauses in faux disbelief. “It’s almost like we’ve won.”