Monday 30 June 2014

Cask beer in Ireland

For all those who think Irish beer is synonymous with nitrogenated stuff in a keg – well, you'd be right, on average. I knew there were also new wave keg and bottled beers on the up, but the possibility of Irish cask real ale hadn't really crossed my mind before going out to Dublin for last weekend's European Beer Bloggers Conference.

Yet it was something that pretty much all the Irish brewers I met mentioned – and with hindsight, why wouldn't it be? Plenty of Irish drinkers and brewers will have sampled real ale while visiting the UK, and of course the US – which is a major inspiration for other craft beer 'movements' – is getting into cask too.

We even had one handpump at the Irish brewers' beerex at the conference – serving new wave brewster Sarah Roarty's wonderful N17 Oatmeal Stout, as it happens, and showing it off very well too. Most of the other brewers I spoke with were also sending casks out or planning to do so.

They all said how awkward or even difficult it is though – not because of any problems with casking, but because any remnants of an earlier Irish cask experience were drowned during the 20th century by a flood of nitrogenated black stuff and carbonated yellow stuff.

Ronan Brennan
So not only is there a big shortage of cellaring skills these days, there's not even that many handpumps. Ronan Brennan, the co-founder of Galway's Hooker Brewery – which pretty much invented modern Irish Pale Ale – told me it's not long since there were just twelve in the entire country, and even now it's probably only three dozen.

“It's also very difficult to know what happens to the cask after you drop it off,” he said – it could be mistreated, or not given long enough to settle and condition.

And as brewer Brian Short from the Brown Paper Bag Project added, if a drinker gets a bad pint, it's often the brewer not the bar that gets the blame.

“The dilemma for cask is that a whole lot of responsibility lies with the pub,” Brian said. “Cask is wonderful in the right hands, but in the wrong hands it can be insipid or even vinegar.” I have to say, my own experience bore that out – a pint of cask stout in one of Dublin's top craft beer pubs was not actually bad, but it was seriously lacking in condition and rather dull as a result.

But wait – it gets worse. Brewers told me about another factor distinct to Ireland which affects both cask and keg craft brewers alike: many pubs don't even know how to clean their beer lines any more.

That's because as the brewing industry consolidated after WW2, almost all of it ended up in the hands of just two macro-brewers when Murphys bought Beamish. Those brewers then tried to make life as easy as possible for pubs and bars, which included supplying the taps and even doing their line-cleaning.

So now craft brewers find themselves having both to commission their own taps, because there's almost no guest taps available, and to hire mobile technicians to do what in other countries the publican is responsible for!

Things are changing though for Irish cask ale. The number of handpumps continues to rise, and so does customers interest. Shane Long, the founder of Cork's Franciscan Well brewery – now part of the MolsonCoors empire alongside Cornwall's Sharps – holds an annual cask ale festival at his brewery tap. At the first, in 2011, they had just 14 cask ales (from a range of breweries) and people were sceptical whether it would sell. This year, he says they sold 50 firkins over a weekend. 


  1. Argh! Yes, I know the history of the Free State and WW2, I was just trying for a less clumsy phrasing than "in the latter half of the 20th century". I should have known better... LOL!

    1. Just yanking your chain Bryan :)

    2. I guessed, which is why I didn't mention all the other stuff... (-: