It wasn’t just the Irish craft beer industry that had a brilliant 2015, with our artisan distillers also making their mark. Stuart Clark talks festive turkey with some of the scene’s leading lights.
As the Irish craft beer industry belts out a communal ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on New Year’s Eve, it can reflect on a 2015 in which everything got bigger, bolder and even more fun for those of us who enjoy their artisanal wares. The ‘big’ part was evident in September at the Irish Craft Beer & Cider Festival in the RDS, Dublin, which – from an almost standing start of 12 breweries in 2011 – boasted over 50 participants from virtually every county in the land. “This is what we dreamed of when we started,” enthused founder Seamus O’Hara as he surveyed the bumper Saturday crowd which – and here’s the ‘bold’ part – was as keen on the Cherry Sours, Seaweed Saisons and Small-Batch Trippels as it was the IPAs and Red Ales. When the festival made its bow there probably wouldn’t have been too many takers for the likes of O Brother’s Brutus Double IPA, the Porterhouse’s Hopped To Feck and Galway Bay’s Of Foam & Fury, which pack in a serious amount of flavour, but now it’s a case of “How do we keep up with demand?” Anybody concerned that market share going up means creativity going down would have had their fears allayed by the O’Hara’s Hop Adventure Series, which stopped off last in Japan and their respective Foreign Affair and Lublin To Dublin limited-edition collaborations with Starr Hill in Virginia and Pinta in Poland. Expect more brewery hands across the seas in 2016. There's been lots of interesting stuff going on in the People's Republic, too. “We’ve done more specials in the last two years than in the first 12,” enthuses Shane Long – no relation – from Franciscan Well in Cork. “It’s necessity, because the customer is simply demanding more. The palate is evolving at a ferocious rate in Ireland right now, and if you don’t adapt you’ll be left behind. The days of producing an IPA, a blond ale and a stout, are pretty much gone. We won Best Seasonal Pale Ale for our Saison at the World Beer Awards; that’s the biggest award we’ve ever received.
In fact, we’ve won more international awards this year than we ever did. It does mean we’re that much busier – we’ve had to stop taking on new accounts, because we just couldn’t keep up. Teaming up with Jameson to produce our stout also earned us a Gold. That’s one that we ran out of; we thought we had enough for the year, and it was gone within a month. We’ll be looking to do a lot more collaboration work with Jameson in the New Year. "It’s remarkable to see how quickly the industry is growing," he continues. "I was at the International Beer Challenge Awards, sitting next to two brewers from Rising Sons. They’re another Cork brewery, and we helped them set up when they first got started. To be at that level in the world after just 12 months is truly remarkable. They won Gold for their Grainu Ale wheat beer. Both the guys there, Shane Murphy and Kieran Foley, trained with us. They were homebrewers two years ago; now they’re living the dream. Not everybody is doing well out of it though; I reckon there’ll be some closures in the New Year, unfortunately. There’s a lot of different factors. Consistency is a huge thing, and not just in Ireland."Despite becoming increasingly competitive, Shane says that there's a wonderful camaraderie within the craft industry here. "There was a great community spirit before, and now it’s back with Beer Ireland," he notes. "They represent the majority of breweries in the country. It’s a private network forum, which means that anyone who has a problem or an issue knows there’s someone on the other end of the line who can help them out.
Everyone’s looking out for each other. The pie is getting bigger. You have guys in Monaghan or Sligo setting up, where nobody really knew anything outside of the branded drinks before. There’s a whole new demographic there. Personally, I think things are going to change dramatically. Recently, one of the most talented brewers I’ve ever had working for me was poached by Guinness. They’re taking notice of this, and you can be damn sure that next year, they’re going to be producing amazing stuff, because this kid is one of the most talented guys I’ve ever had working for me."Barely a month has passed in 2015 without the launch of a new brewery – Third Circle, Knockout, Wood Key, Mont, Walled City and Drew Fox are among those who’ve hit the ground running – or an existing one announcing expansion plans. Exciting years lie ahead for Rye River in Celbridge, County Kildare, who are trebling production and building an 8,000 square foot visitor centre, and the Boyne Brewhouse in Drogheda whose new €20m facility will comprise of a brewery and taproom, a distillery producing both whiskey and gin, a visitor centre, whiskey bar, event space, 120-seater theatre and a shop. Phew! 2015 has also seen more and more home brewers deciding to go the commercial route, with Limerick’s Treaty City Brewing, Cork’s Radik Ale and James Brown Brews in Dublin all proving that the step-up can be made. Last spotted boiling pots of rhubarb on his Mam’s stove for a fruity IPA, Brown, still only 23, had his Chocolate Orange Stout crowned Beoir Champion Beer of 2015 down in Killarney while expat Belgian Alain Dekoster had the very bright idea of producing his Radik Ale Radical Brew in association with Cork neighbours, Blackwater Gin. Which is a reminder, if any were needed, that it’s not just the beer boys and girls who’ve been causing a ruckus in 2015.
The growth in Irish craft whiskey, vodka and gin distilling has been phenomenal with serious time, money, expertise and passion being invested in new setups all over the country. “From the beginning we’ve tried to be innovative, but that’s not always easy, ” says Blackwater’s Peter Mulryan of their Radik Ale tie-in. “We collaborated with the Dungarvan Brewing Company and Black’s of Kinsale and, in both cases, we distilled their beers. The Revenue told us we can’t do it because it’s breaking a law from 1880. You can only distill a wash that you make yourself, so that put the kibosh on that. It got us thinking, ‘How can we collaborate?’ Alain is a fan of our gin, and brewers have a little more latitude than distillers. We piloted the Radical Brew and it got a great reaction, so we started with a 600-litre run that was sold out before it was even made. He’s just done a second, far bigger run, which is also in bottles. “There’s no point in trying to go for the big guys, and have identical products on the supermarket shelves because we can’t compete at that level. What we can do is small runs and interesting ideas. That’s what craft brewers are doing – putting coffee in their stout and chilli in their beer and having some fun.” Peter feels that the proliferation of new Irish distilleries is something that was almost preordained to happen. “It’s very similar to the States; you look at Anchor Steam Distillery, which had a brewery first and then diversified,” he notes. “The pattern’s been the same in the UK too. Gin has been reinvented in the past five or six years.
It coincided with the recession – much like the craft beer movement – where people were going for quality rather than quantity. It’s all down to the botanicals – put good stuff in and you’ll get good stuff out, as you do with a good wine or beer. “Young people are brand loyal with vodka but willing to experiment with gin,” he continues. “The more there are on the market, the more excited they’re getting. We just launched a pot-still vodka, as well as the juniper-casked gin and both are doing really, really well. In the New Year, we’re going to do a little bit of crowd-funding as we finally get into whiskey. We’re getting a far larger still and the campaign will be arriving towards the end of January.” May 13 was a red letter day for the industry as the Irish Whiskey Association’s Vision For Irish Whiskey strategy document was launched in the Jameson Distillery by Irish Food Food Minister Simon Coveney. There are 26 new or proposed distillers in Ireland, with exports of Irish whiskey up a whopping 220% since 2003 to €300m. With the laying down process taking a minimum of three years, a lot of those 26 are getting their name out there and generating revenue by producing quality gins and vodkas, which take a matter of weeks to distill.
Among the names you’ll be hearing a lot more of in the coming years are the Connacht Whiskey Company whose name now hangs above what was Duffy’s Bakery in Belleek; the as-yet-unnamed tenants who are moving into the disused video cassette factory next to Sligo’s Halewood House and the Waterford Distillery who’ve taken over the old Guinness Brewery. Hop Press has already declared itself to be a massive fan of Cork’s St. Patrick’s Distillery whose 100% Potato Vodka is the pick of their six tipples, and Thin Gin, the premium product from the makers of Muldoon Irish Whiskey Liqueur who are another reason why Waterford’s become such a foodie enclave. Back in Beerland, it’s been a brilliant 2015 for Wicklow Wolf who’ve gone from being a well-kept Garden County secret to one of the best-known craft brewers in the country. “We’ve had a very, very busy year, pretty much quadrupling our capacity and trying to stay ahead of demand as best we can,” enthuses Wicklow Wolf ’s Quincey Fennelly. “In this business, there’s a certain level of entertainment required. When people go to buy a beer, oftentimes they’ll want to see what’s new and different. We try to bring out at least one new beer every quarter; we’ve been really busy this time and brought out three! The first is the Elevation Pale Ale, which we’ve had on draft for the past couple of months but is now available in bottles. We also have a collaboration with Java Republic on A Beer Called Rwanda. It’s a Coffee Brown Ale. I hadn’t known this, but Rwanda produces some of the best coffee in the world. We were approached by Java Republic to do something together, and I’ve always enjoyed coffee beers. We used this Rwandan coffee with which they’ve won Great Taste Awards, and it’s turned out really well. “We also harvested our own hops a few weeks back for our Locavore Fresh Hop Ale, which is coming soon. Unlike American-grown hops, ours don’t have that high acid content, so it’s a fresh and clean Irish Pale Ale. I’ve only tasted it out of the bright tanks, but it’s going to go down very well. The definition of a ‘locavore’ is someone who searches out local food and drink, and survives on what’s in the area. It’s Irish malt, Irish yeast, our own hops, and obviously Irish water.
The only thing not Irish is the cap – but you’ll surely give me a pardon on that front!” Okay, Quincey, seeing as it’s Christmas! “We don’t tend to shout too much about what our future plans are, for fear someone beats us to it,” he concludes, “but we have some very interesting ideas in the pipeline for the New Year!” That extremely tasty sounding Locavore might well be one of the beers showcasing at the Alltech Craft Brews & Food Fair, which returns to the National Convention Centre from February 5-7, which live music and the Six Nations on the big screen for rugby fans. Like the Irish Craft Beer & Cider Festival, 2015’s Fair was the most successful yet with tickets for the next gathering of the craft clans available from eu.alltechbrewsandfood.com. To all of you who’ve brewed, supped and generally fought the good fight over the past 12 months, Merry Christmas and Sláinte!