Sunday, 10 April 2016

Irish Craft Beer: Is now the time?

Irish Craft Beer: Is now the time?

If you didn’t know there had been a craft beer revolution in Ireland similar to the explosion of new breweries and beers on this side of the Irish Sea then you might be in for a bit of a shock. What you could be forgiven for however is thinking that it had been on a fairly low key scale, such has been the small amount of Irish craft beer reaching these shores up until now.

It’s strange to consider the amount of beer that reaches the UK from the United States with logistically harder obstacles of transport and trade to overcome as well as freshness issues to be taken into account, that we don’t see more from nearest neighbours.

Recently I was invited to attend the ‘Spirit of Sharing’ event organised by Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, and held at the Irish Embassy in London. Hosted by Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall who proved himself to have a good working knowledge of Irish beer, highlighting an example of a beer and food menu in a restaurant he had visited relatively recently.

The purpose of the evening was to bring together food and drink writers, bloggers, and retailers with small Irish drinks producers from the areas of whiskey, poitin (which I’d never had and developed an immediate taste for), cream liqueurs and beer.

There were representatives of six Irish breweries present: Boyne Brewhouse, Carlow Brewing Company (O’Hara’s), Drew Fox Brewing (Clever Man), Galway Hooker, White Hag Brewery, and Wicklow Wolf Brewing Company, all showcasing their wares. To have six stands out of a total of fourteen dedicated to beer shows how seriously it is now being taken.

All the beer I drank was of a good or very good standard, with the best being on a par with some of the more well-respected UK craft brewers, and the worst the equivalent of our established family breweries.

It was an excellent evening, the canapes and chocolates that accompanied the alcohol were delicious, all Irish of course, and we were even given bottles to take home however, even though I got to have some conversations there wasn’t the opportunity to talk in depth that I would have liked.

Fortunately I had another chance a few weeks later when The Rake held a celebration of Irish beer, “Thank Goodness, No Guinness”, for St. Patrick’s day, featuring both cask and keg beers and celebrating some of the best that Ireland has to offer.

It was busy when I got there, but thankfully I spotted a few faces I knew; Steve from the Beer O’Clock Show and Simon Sanders, both of whom had been at the Irish Embassy. The casks were set up on stillage in the outside drinking area and I opted for a pint of the dry-hopped Kinsale Pale Ale from Blacks of Kinsale Brewery. Steve pointed out that standing immediately behind me was the man that had brewed it, Sam Black.

Based in Cork, Sam completed an MSc degree in Brewing and Distilling at Edinburgh’s Herriot Watt University in 2012 and opened the brewery with his wife, Maudeline, the following year. Currently brewing around ninety barrels a week, most of his output is currently bottled.

“We keg the remainder of our beer normally,” he tells me, “as there are only around eight or so pubs in Ireland who actually know how to serve cask beer.”

“The Irish Craft Beer scene, is very small at the moment, around two percent of the market. If you imagine the menu at McDonald’s, for example, it’s the equivalent of those little tubs of tomato sauce you get to dip your chicken nuggets in, probably even smaller than that. Heineken is by far the most popular drink, not Guinness as many people believe, so there’s a huge potential for growth.”

I ask him if it’s difficult to find craft beer outside of the main cities or towns.

“Not really,” he says, “you can generally find at least one outlet in most places, wherever you might be, that you’ll find some good craft beer. The older pubs that were there at the start of the Irish craft beer boom that have survived, and many went under, were the best in most instances. People have just started to make a profit out of it in the last two years.”

Having related this to others, I’m not convinced that you can find good beer everywhere you go but I gather from speaking to Pierce Cooney (otherwise known as Sonovagun, and who I’ll coming back to later) some breweries, such as Bru, have nationwide supermarket contracts that gets their beer the exposure they need.

Wanting to find a different viewpoint I found Liam Brogan from Ireland Craft Beers, the company responsible for bringing the beers over to The Rake for this event. He is the only full-time employee with the title of Chief of Operations, and far more enjoyable than his previous job as a chartered accountant.

“We see the whole of Ireland as one market,” Liam tells me, “and even though we’re based in Belfast we treat deal with the both Northern Ireland and the Republic as one market.” More like the Irish rugby team rather than the separate football teams I speculate. “Yes, exactly that,” he says.

“There are ninety breweries in the whole of Ireland, Northern and Eire” he explains, ”including contract brewers, and we see our job to be introducing them to a larger markets. We don’t sell in Ireland though, instead we’re currently concentrating on expanding into the UK, particularly London in the Brewdog bars, and in New York with its Irish immigrant community which we hope will give us a foothold in the US.”

I’m curious to find out how they overcome any trade and currency barriers, and how the beer gets to its destination at point of sale. He initially responds with a well-rehearsed sound-bite, which I suppose is the unofficial company slogan.

“We are the ‘One stop shop for all your export needs’. We collect from the brewery and deliver to the bar. We pay all the duties, taking all the trouble away from the buyer, and use existing hauliers to actually transport the beer, which cuts our costs overall.”

“The craft beer market has seen a huge global boom in the last five years, and we want to be part of that.”

I checked his figures concerning the number of breweries in Ireland on the Beoir website which provides a comprehensive list, particularly as I’d heard the Irish Ambassador quote sixty as the figure the previous week. If you consider the area as one, Liam’s figure is closer to the actual number but I’m assuming that Mr. Mulhall was only referring to those from the Republic.

There’s one man that I particularly wanted to speak to before the evening is out, and I manage to grab a few words with him just before he was about to leave for another event.

Rick Levert from Kinnegar Brewing grew up in upstate New York, meeting his partner Libby Carton in Germany where she convinced him to follow her back to her homeland and set up a brewery. The brewery is (unsurprisingly) in Kinnegar, County Donegal, they also have links with nearby Rathmullan house, a four-star hotel, having set-up a brewing academy offering weekend courses dealing with both the theory and practice of brewing.

I ask him first about the size of his brewery, before moving on to his future plans and the likelihood of us seeing his beer in the UK.

“Our system is currently around eight and half barrels, and we brew somewhere around nine to ten thousand litres a week, if you’ll allow me to use American units of measurement,” he tells me in his soft but firm East Coast accent, “which works out at around four-hundred thousand litres of beer a year.”

“Due to my upbringing in the US I have a slightly different perspective on the craft beer scene in Ireland. We’re currently concentrating solely on Ireland for the moment as we’re brewing at capacity and all of our beer is currently consumed there. The demand is there for our beer, we have a particularly strong base in both Galway and Dublin, and as every drop we can produce at the moment we just don’t have any to send abroad. We will be moving to a new brewery in about a year however which will be around a kilometre away from our current site, and we have factored in additional capacity which mean that we will be able to have around thirty percent of our total output available for export.”

Hopeful signs that we might see more beer from Kinnegar in the foreseeable future, it’s just that we’ll have to wait a little longer.

I did manage to have another conversation with an Irish brewer, although it wasn’t that particular evening. I’d sent an email to Malcolm Molloy from Drew Fox (Clever Man) Brewery having spoken briefly with him at the Irish Embassy, and he kindly telephoned me the week after the event at The Rake to answer my questions.

Based in Wexford, County Wexford in the South-East of Ireland, Malcolm had previously spent a long time in Chicago, having his own pub there, The Grafton, which gave him plenty of experience of craft beer, both selling and tasting.

With his children growing up and having a hankering to come back to Ireland, he made the decision to move back to Wexford in 2010. As he knew, as he says “a bit about beer” and drawing on his experiences he began planning his brewery in the middle of 2012, eventually opening around a year ago. He currently brews around twice a week on his two thousand litre kit, and is very open and honest with his answers.

I start by talking about the beer I’d had at “Thank Goodness, No Guinness” evening, referring to cask beer in general, and he re-iterates what Sam Black had previously told me.

“I don’t do cask beer, we’re strictly keg and bottle only,” he says. “Unlike the UK, Ireland doesn’t have cellarmen, and there’s no real training or education in keeping and selling cask beer. It’s much easier to clip on a keg and have a stock of bottles for both convenience sake and keeping the beer longer. By keeping to keg and bottle, every establishment that sells beer is a potential customer as there is no tie system over here.”

I’m guessing it’s not quite that straight forward but he refuses to be drawn, preferring instead to talk about the beer and how he views the UK market.

“As a nation we’re really just dipping our toes in the craft beer waters. With plenty of demand in Ireland expanding into the UK at this stage would bring a huge element of risk. There is plenty of opportunity for Irish beer to make inroads into the UK, being Irish still carries a great deal of provenance as a location and there are lots of people living there with Irish roots, but whether the time is right, well I’m not so sure.”

“The recent Irish craft beer scene has developed along different lines from typical English beer, taking its cue from, and emulating, American styles. We are lucky in that even though there is a constant yearning for newness, there is also a desire to drink what’s local.”

“We have to sell our beer through pubs at the moment and not on our own premises as a tasting room would be illegal under current Irish law. I doubt this will change either, as there would be a lot of resistance from Irish publicans and they form a big pressure group over here, carrying a lot of political weight.”

Having more of an understanding of the problems facing breweries there I ask him about his future plans.
“We’re looking to become the next Budweiser!” he jokes. “When we came to the market, we had a range of four core beers but something a little different from most breweries, with an Amber, an American-style Pale Ale, a Kolsch-style beer, and a peat-smoked Stout. When I planned the brewery I had already factored in potential growth and we have plenty of excess capacity, but at this stage we’re purely looking at establishing our footprint locally before considering other markets, although this most certainly would include the UK.”

Having spoken to those inside the industry I wanted some insight from some consumers, so I approached Pierce Cooney with whom I’d previously exchanged beer (I sent him some from Brentwood after he sent me a bottle Ejector Seat, that turf-smoked stout from Cleverman), and Wayne Dunne, the Irish Beer Snob, who releases the excellent beer podcast of that name with his wife Janice, and knows many of the brewers in Ireland personally.

I asked them both the question I posed in the title of this piece, whether or not they thought the time was right for Irish beer in the UK, and if so (or not) then why? The first to respond was Pierce as Wayne had other commitments to fulfil before getting back to me.

“Why isn’t there more Irish craft beer in the UK? That’s a good question. It’s probably a question of demand meeting supply. Craft beer has grown massively in Ireland and breweries are just meeting local/Irish demand at the moment, I’d imagine that they’re just not brewing enough to export. There is a lot of expansion going on at the moment however, and breweries are constantly stating that in order to survive they must export.”

“Secondly, in my opinion a lot of Irish beer just isn’t good enough to export anywhere at the moment. Most core ranges consist of a Pale Ale, a Red Ale and a Stout, and most of these are just bog-standard. It would be my guess that many importers in the UK have turned down Irish beer purely on the grounds of its (lack of) quality.”

“We’re still behind the UK in terms of innovation and scale, there’s nothing here of the standard of Brewdog, Buxton or Thornbridge for example, and a lot of times the beer from the UK that we actually see over here has been that which breweries haven’t been able to sell over there, so it’s shipped over here close to its best before date. I could be wrong, but that’s my theory, and my fear would be that due to a crowded market the UK would get Irish craft beer that’s just not selling in Ireland.”

“Having said that though, I do have a feeling that you’ll be seeing more Irish craft beer in the UK very soon.”

Wayne, along with Janice, has a similar take on the situation but with some surprising information when it comes to exports.

“Our take on it is that brewers who are setting up are first and foremost concentrating on getting the quality right along with satisfying demand in their local market. That in itself is a challenge given the relatively small scale on which some of these guys operate. We are constantly seeing new start-ups having to increase capacity within twelve months of opening. According to the latest figures, around forty percent of Irish brewers are exporting, although to be honest the main markets would be the US, Canada, as well as parts of Europe. The UK market, specifically England, is a much harder nut to crack, especially given the quality of some of the beers being produced there right now.”

“The overall quality is improving, but I do think that part of the problem is tying up some good distribution partners, those who won’t price their beers out of the market, particularly in relation the strength of Sterling versus the Euro.”

“It used to be that only the distilling side of our alcohol exports were being promoted abroad, so it’s good to see beer and cider being featured as well. For the first time ever Irish craft beer was sent to the President of the USA as part of a St. Patrick’s Day package. That was O’Hara’s (Carlow Brewing Company), and I know that they teamed up with Wetherspoons for their recent Cask Festival, and they have a dedicated UK distributor, but are they just another brand in a bulging portfolio? This is where distribution selection is crucial.”

“To sum up, it’s down to satisfying local demand first, then struggling to find suitable partners for export. From what I understand Bord Bia are starting to mentor companies who are ready to export, with operations like Ireland Craft Beers helping getting into the markets that they want to target.”

Looking at all the evidence, I’d have to conclude that whereas I’d personally like to see more Irish craft beer readily available over here I’m going to have to learn to be a little less selfish and wait a little while longer. Irish brewing, ignoring the old established brewers for the moment, is still in its infancy and needs to develop at its own rate. Somebody at The Rake said they were about five years behind what’s been happening in the UK, and whilst I don’t think that’s true, they’re proving to be fast learners, I think that they still have a fair way to go.

All is not lost however, and if you want to find some great Irish beer then you just need to know where to look. Bru, for example, have over eighty draught accounts in the UK and you can find at least one O’Hara’s beer, the County Carlow Irish Stout, in most larger Marks and Spencer stores countrywide. If you want a little more choice then you could do a lot worse than check out Honest Brew’s online store, featuring beers from both Eight Degrees and White Hag, and if you know anywhere else I can find Irish craft beer over here then please be sure to let me know.

Useful links:
Pierce Cooney on Twitter - but you should also check out his Instagram account @son0vagun
Wayne Dunne on TwitterJanice Dunne on Twitter and the Irish Beer Snob website including links to their podcast