Hops, skip and a jump in sales: craft brewing is coming to a head

Ireland is getting crafty as it rethinks its attitude to drinking, from quantity to quality and local culture

The White Hag stand at the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival in the RDS

The White Hag stand at the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival in the RDS

 

I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I think we Irish are finally getting really good at drinking. After decades as the planet’s top topers, as the nation synonymous with a lack of sobriety, we are finally grasping the fact that drinking is actually about culture, respect and health.

We are waking up to the fact that we are living in the midst of a craft-beer revolution, that we are in the throes of a cider revolution, and that the Irish craft distilling revolution is going to be the Next Big Thing.

And it is finally dawning on us that drinking is about matching alcohol with delicious food.

How else can you explain the fact that thousands upon thousands of sensible people paid good money to access the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival last week at the RDS?

They could have walked into any one of hundreds of Dublin pubs for nothing, yet there they were handing out money just to get access to a gaggle of brewers and cider- makers who make stuff with names like Galway Hooker, Trouble Brewing, The White Hag and Tempted?

Given our previous history with booze, this doesn’t make any sense. Drinking in Ireland used to mean sitting or standing for hours in pubs where the selection of drinks was exactly the same as in every other pub in the land.

The idea of choice was an illusion: Irish pubs were as homogenised as fast-food franchises, and their drink offering was just as bad and bland as any global junk brand.

But suddenly, as Caroline Hennessy and Kristin Jensen point out in their superlative book, Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer and Cider, craft brewing “is a success story in the middle of a recession. Who would have thought people would spend more money on a pint at a time when their income is dropping? But we are, and the microbrewing industry is growing at a rate of 45 per cent a year in one of the worst recessions ever to hit Ireland.”

In fact, The Irish Times reckons growth in the sector will hit 50 per cent in 2014, with €15 million in sales. Sure, that’s still small beer, but when you consider that there was only a handful of craft brewers working here five years ago, the jump to €15 million is a vast leap.

Perhaps the most singular aspect of Sláinte is that it is written by two food writers and so, while it gives the lowdown on who makes what and where among the brewers and cider- makers, more than 70 pages of the book are given over to how beers and ciders match with food, how they match with farmhouse cheeses, and how you can use them in the kitchen.

This is the really dynamic aspect of the text, and Hennessy and Jensen pull no punches when it comes to advocating a large space for beer and cider in your kitchen and at your table: “Did you know that beer is actually a better match with food than wine?” they write. Then they tell us why it is: “Hops stimulate the appetite due to their bitter taste, making beer an ideal drink to have with a meal.

“The bubbly, cleansing carbonation in beer gives a refreshing lift to the palate, leaving you ready to taste each bite like it’s the first.

“Beer has a greater range of flavours than wine. Wine is restricted by its single ingredient – grapes – but beer can play with different variations of grains, hops and yeast, and other add-ins such as spices, chocolate, chillies, nuts, fruit or vegetables. The greater flavour range in the drink means that there are more opportunities to find equivalent matches, or contrasts, with the food.”

Some of the examples of creative beer and food matchings that Hennessy and Jensen give are mind-blowing.

Did you know that the great Dublin baker, Caryna Camerino, once matched chilli chocolate tart with O’Hara’s Leann Folláin extra Irish stout? Or that in Stoneybatter’s L Mulligan Grocer they pitch Jack McCarthy’s black pudding with Rodenbach Grand Cru? Or that the Sheridan brothers of cheesemongering fame would advise you to pair Durrus farmhouse cheese with Stonewell Dry Cider?

The book also contains a score of superb recipes, collated from various Irish food writers, including Caroline Hennessy’s own recipe for Double Chocolate Porter Brownies which are, hands down, the best brownies I have ever tasted.

This is all very jolly, but the health-giving aspects of drinking craft beer in moderation are also explained. Craft beer has as many antioxidants as wine and gives us dietary silicon, protein and B vitamins.

And there is a splendid irony in the fact that the dregs of bottle-conditioned beers – such as those from Dungarvan Brewing or Kerry’s Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne – contain amino acids, B minerals and vitamins, so don’t be throwing that last drop down the drain.

I think there is a mental-health gain with craft beer also. Knowing that what you are drinking, or cooking with, has been made by a passionate artisan dedicated to experiment and excellence means you can enjoy the drink with a clear conscience. Knowing that you are not just a cog in the consumer cycle of some cynical multinational conglomerate helps you to understand that craft beers and ciders are the product of culture and not just commerce. Sláinte introduces and elucidates that culture, and helps us to get good at drinking.

Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer and Cider by Caroline Hennessy and Kristin Jensen is published by New Island.

John McKenna is the author of Where to Eat and Stay on the Wild Atlantic Way. See guides.ie

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