Sunday 13 March 2016

Irish craft beer in London

When is an IPA not an IPA? When it’s an Irish Pale Ale – then you have no way of knowing if it’s a Pale Ale that’s Irish or a transatlantic IPA. Except of course you could find out by drinking it, a tactic that I wholeheartedly recommend…

And if you’re in London today (Sun 13th March) you could have a chance to do exactly that this afternoon, when Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) is organising an Irish food & drink market from 12-6pm in Trafalgar Square, as part of London’s early St Patrick’s Day celebration.

Two years ago I was in Dublin for the European Beer Bloggers Conference. We met a lot of Irish craft brewers, enjoyed a lot of good Irish beer and discovered a lot about the beer scene in the Republic. Since then I’ve been following some excellent Irish beer blogs to keep in touch, but given that the brewers there don’t do a lot of distribution in London, it is impossible to really know what’s the new beer is really like.

So when an invitation arrived from Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, to meet 20 of the Republic’s hottest craft distillers and brewers at the embassy in London, it was a great opportunity to get back in tune – and to actually taste what those folks are up to.

I’d met two of the breweries before – Carlow, which brews under the O’Hara’s name, and Galway Hooker. However, I’d forgotten just how good O’Hara’s Irish Red really is, and when I met Galway Hooker before they only had the one beer, their Irish Pale Ale – they now have four regulars.

Galway's IPA
On top of that, the Pale Ale was better than I remembered and it had an intriguing note of Kölsch about it – brewer Aidan Murphy explained that while it’s brewed as a PA, its aroma hops include Saaz and it’s cold-conditioned for three weeks, which almost makes it a Kölsch. Of the newer beers, the Amber was lightly toasty and the Irish Stout was excellent, with fruity sweet notes over a dry body. Last but not least was an India Pale Ale, zesty and fresh, with lime and passionfruit notes.

It was interesting to see how the younger breweries contrasted. Like those older two, some such as Boyne Brewhouse and Drew Fox Brewing focus on a core range of three or four beers, typically something lagery, a Stout, a Red Ale and a Pale Ale or IPA. Others such as Wicklow Wolf and White Hag are more like many American micros or brewpubs, with a wide range and always doing something new.

Clever Man's attractive labels
Either way, craft brewers in the Irish Republic take their cues far more from the US than from Britain or elsewhere in Europe. That’s probably because so many of them are American or have lived in the US, like Malcolm Molloy of Drew Fox Brewing, who lived in Chicago for 16 years. Molloy is in the first camp, with just four beers in his Clever Man range, all named after Irish inventors and their inventions. Interestingly, for his lager slot he had indeed chosen a Kölsch, but the best of the bunch was his beautifully rich Turf Smoked Stout, with a dose of smoky whiskey malt plus notes of plum and mocha coffee.

Also in the core camp was Boyne Brewhouse, the brand new beery arm of Na Cuana (The Cooney), a family-run drinks company that’s also into cider, cream liqueurs, whiskey and gin. Talking to Paul Cooney, he mentioned that they first started a brewery about 10 years ago – which I reckon would have been about the same time as Galway Hooker started up – but that it was not a success.

That, incidentally, would have been during the second wave of Irish microbrewery start-ups, with Carlow being one of the very few survivors of the first wave in the 1990s. The last two or three years have seen a third craft-inspired wave of start-ups, with most of the brewers present being from this latest generation.

Anyhow, Boyne has three beers so far, with a Stout still to come. Its twists on the trend are that its Pale Ale is Australian-hopped, and its lager is a pretty good example of Dortmunder Export, a classic style that’s not often seen outside Germany.

Of the other, more eclectic brewers, I’ll write more about White Hag later, as they’ve kindly passed me a few bottles that I’ve not had a chance to try yet. Just to say now that in contrast with the others, they’ve made more than two dozen different beers in about a year and a half. They also got a name-check from the Irish ambassador in his welcome speech for having their sour heather ale – and it really is an ale in the historical sense, because it’s unhopped – in a couple of top beer bars in beer in New York.

As an aside, it’s a measure of just how good a job Guinness has done of embedding itself into the Irish national myth (and indeed, there in a corner of the hall, presumably left over from a different event, were empty kegs of Guinness Stout) that while the ambassador was quite comfortable bigging up the new whiskey and liqueur producers present, he seemed to struggle a little with the brewers.

Quincey Fennelly
Once he’d sorted out his notes though, he also name-checked Wicklow Wolf for having their own hop garden, which they use the hops from in their autumn seasonal beer. They too are pretty eclectic, but have built their range around that standard core of an India Pale Ale, a Red Ale and a Porter. They’ve also achieved more of a breakthrough into pubs and bars than most – co-founder Quincey Fennelly told me he was able to use contacts in the trade from his years working for drinks distributor C&C. They now have beer on draught in around 150 pubs in the Dublin and Wicklow area (County Wicklow takes in some of the south Dublin suburbs, by the way), he said.

So, a snapshot of a market that’s evolving fast. Two years on from my last visit, when the on-trade was still firmly tied up by Guinness and Heineken, it is starting to open up. The small brewers still do a lot in bottle though so they can get to market through other channels. And Big Beer is fighting back – for example Guinness brought out Smithwick’s Pale Ale and more recently Hop House 13 lager, which its reps are using to keep publicans from defecting when their customers want something crafty. Meanwhile, Heineken has introduced its own Irish Pale Ale and craft lager under its Cute Hoor brand.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago at Craft Beer Rising, I also met some brewers from Northern Ireland and learnt about some of the unique challenges they’re facing – there’s a lot in common, but also some differences. I wrote about that here. Interesting times, eh?


  1. Interesting indeed. Great to see these getting out into the world.

    For the record, White Gypsy also has a hop garden.

  2. Thanks - I've made a little edit to reflect that.

    Spoilt for choice, aren't we now!