Supermarket sweep?

The sale of alcohol in supermarkets attracts a lot of attention facing accusations of promoting binge drinking through cut price booze, lowering prices to squeeze out independent retailers and generally not being open to small, local producers due to quantities needed. Also, the impact on publicans has been quite vocal over recent years. The focus could be on spirits but much of the reference in the media focuses on beer. They seem to ignore wine for some reason.

A lot of this is to do is rooted in the fundamental economic models of multiple-retailers, such as their need to satisfy and achieve certainty in their supply-chains etc. For example, it was reported that Walmart was selling macro beers at about cost price so they can be the largest single beer retailer in America (and possibly the world). The US market is perhaps unusual due to individual State restrictions on alcohol such as not being allowed to sell wine and beer together or others where selling high abv beer is banned. Supermarkets’ greatest strength is their convenience and this is where they can make a significant contribution to boosting the popularity of beer.

Some supermarket chains are doing some interesting things in the beer space. Sainsbury’s  operate the Great British Beer Hunt, which runs on a regional basis in the preliminary round where successful beers are stocked for 3 weeks (Barney’s Brew from Hilden was a regional winner in 2013) before two overall winners are selected for a six-month listing across the UK. US specialty chain Whole Foods Market only sells products that meet its self-created quality standards for being “natural” and thankfully beer can be right at home here. I came across one in Nashville that besides a well-stocked beer aisle, it has a growler station pushing local brews, but they also do meet-the-brewer events and pizza and beer evenings in-store while shopping. Whole Foods has also brought growler-fills to some of its UK stores and thankfully for people looking for off-sales in down-town London (distinct lack of off-licences), their Piccadilly store has some good bottle beers in stock.

Beer is clearly being championed in Whole Foods
Beer is clearly being championed in Whole Foods
The growler station in Whole Foods focussed on local beers on draft
The growler station in Whole Foods focussed on local beers on draft

In Ireland, we have seen offerings from English breweries becoming more commonly available on Irish supermarket shelves. Is this simply reflecting the sourcing operations being located in the UK? Perhaps this is similar to other food producers trying to get a listing. However, we’ve also seen a number of Irish producers (aside of course from the usual suspects) being available in the supermarkets here. O’Hara’s can be frequently spotted either under itsr own name or that of O’Shea’s in Aldi. Some of the Porterhouse beers came be spotted here and there as well. Of the newer breweries, Bo Bristle made a big push on the drink-at-home market through Marks & Spencers and SuperValu is pushing Brú Brewery and others as part of their Irish Craft Beer Sale.

O'Hara's is regularly seen in supermarkets around Ireland
O’Hara’s is regularly seen in supermarkets around Ireland

What inspired this piece is that Tesco is currently having an in-store beer and cider festival. Supermarkets used to push wine festivals and events but now they appear to trying to get into the beer scene in a big way. Of course they will be looking for session or gateway beers that some might call them, beers. The key to them is being accessible and honest so they attract the widest possible audience. Shelf space is at a premium and volume is of course key. Perhaps we’ll see a time where some Irish beers become more “mainstream” they’ll be sold principally in supermarkets and the more specialty items will continue to be found in specialty stores and pubs.

Franciscan Well being pushed out to large audiences due to Molson-Coors acquisition
Franciscan Well being pushed out to large audiences due to Molson-Coors acquisition

Some of the Irish beers might fall outside the “craft” definition due to not being independent, such as the Franciscan Well Red Ale & Friar Weisse that appeared in my local Tesco (situated beside their new half-cousin Blue Moon). Distribution channels are the hidden hand of the beer industry and tie-ups can mean better access. However, we cannot forget what increased choice could do for the industry: consumers trying new beers, liking them and searching out new and different types, a similar tale that most of us could relate to.

McGargles occupying prime shelf real-estate
McGargles occupying prime shelf real-estate

The McGargles range has also popped up in Tesco. Taking inspiration from the presentation of beers in US retailers, the McGargles beers are pre-packaged in four packs (it’s quite hard to buy individual bottles of beer in the States because they’re keen on the six-pack). Their branding is extremely visible and rather impressively occupies prime real-estate on the shelf too.

Pushing beer as an ingredient
Pushing beer as an ingredient

The other things that supermarkets can help push the positioning of beer alongside food. I’m not talking about the occasional pizza and six-pack deal they might offer. Tesco currently have a menu card (I only saw one, hopefully there’s more) for a traditional beef strew with O’Hara’s Leann Folláin. They’re clearly trying to up their game in terms of presenting beer to their customers, in that it not only pairs does well with food, it could also be a fantastic ingredient.

300ml of Leann Folláin called for in this Irish stew recipe
300ml of Leann Folláin called for in this Irish stew recipe

Of course the super market chains will continue to push the macros and this will continue to fuel negative press coverage. If minimum pricing is ever introduced, the focus will still be on the higher volume items. Nonetheless, newer breweries will continue to pop up because of their potential to grow their share of the beer market.

Into the West, beer could be safer than the water

What’s in the water in Galway? Jokingly one could link the emergence of Galway brewing to the fact that beer could be safer to drink than the water. This would of course be doing a disservice to the breweries themselves. First, with Cork and now with Galway, Ireland has its second significant cluster of breweries. Buoyed by the success of Galway Bay and Galway Hooker (yes it’s brewed in Roscommon but it’s very much Galway in all it’s maroon and white). Now there’s Independent Brewing and N17 on the scene, both joining the ranks in 2014.

Galway City is renowned for good times and they’ve a thriving craft beer scene to boot. Of course you can pay one’s respects by having a pint of Guinness in Freeney’s but you can move along High Street and have a pint of Bonaparte’s Stout in Tigh Neachtain’s by Galway Hooker. Then of course you can do the trail of the four, I repeat FOUR, Cottage Group (aka Galway Bay) pubs, two of which are out in Salthill along with Chris’ brewing laboratory (I deem it a lab because of the brilliant concoctions that have betwixed Ireland’s beer drinking fraternity). Just wait until he gets an even bigger facility!

Before I set off down the M6, I spent the previous evening in the newest member of the Cottage Group family, Alfie Byrne’s under the Conrad Hotel. This allowed me to try two new beers, along with the 2014 Beoir Beer of the Year “Of Foam and Fury” in all its tropical fruit glory and pith. Their new American Amber had a glorious auburn body topped with a good head. There was plenty of fruit and pine on the nose, with slight sweetness detectable as well. Full-on bitter citrus was flavour profile for this brew, which pushed on into the aftertaste.

American Amber by Galway Bay
American Amber by Galway Bay

The second beer was also product of their pilot facility and was a Cascadian Dark ale at 6.8% and it was available on cask, happy days! The Cascadian Dark Ale versus the Black IPA dispute aroused so much animosity that it was the beer equivalent of the east coast/west coast rap wars of the early 1990s, both in querying it’s very origins and the name itself. While I agree the BIPA moniker doesn’t really fit, I will declare my hand now by saying that I believe its roots are back in Burlington, Vermont. Galway Bay’s version of a black IPA had an aroma of tropical fruits and a hint of pine, which poured rich chocolate brown in colour topped by a creamy head. When tasted your were immediately punched by ripe pithy fruit. It was slightly cloying but gave way to a creamy finish. What was remarkable was almost the complete absence of dark malt flavours, which is a skill of only good brewers of this style.

Cascadian Dark Ale on cask
Cascadian Dark Ale on cask

Cousins Aidan Murphy and Ronan Brennan started a Galway Hooker back in 2006 and the name came from a competition. Rumour has it that their glasses rank amongst the most stolen and smuggled back to the US with a titter. The iconic pale ale at 4.3% is settling in nicely as one of the best session beers out there. Their draught pumps are becoming an increasingly familiar sight in non-traditional craft beer pubs. I must admit that I’m quite partial to this and have used it in several beer & food tastings. The use of cascade backed up by Irish malts give it a pleasant tanginess on a biscuit base. It’s a beer that’s fantastic in batter as well. Hard to come by their other offering (i.e. the Stout; they did have a dark wheat at one stage too) outside select locations and festivals.

A perfect session ale (glass the author's own and acquired responsibly)
A perfect session ale (glass the author’s own and acquired responsibly)

Carraroe in the Gaeltacht is home to Independent Brewing Company, under the stewardship of Kevin O’Hara. Given the all clear by the revenue commissioners around the third week of January the beers starting appearing in off-licences and bars the following week. Indeed I hosted a tasting of their Gold Ale and Pale Ale that week, the Red Ale was released a couple of weeks later. I tried it during the week and it has a wonderful aroma of caramel and dry-roasted peanuts, with the classic red appearance and a head of thick foam. It was dry and bitter on the initial taste that gradually became more refreshing, although it finished a little thin. The Pale Ale and Gold Ale proved very popular during January’s tasting, both under the influence of C-hops (although a fair bit more in the Pale Ale).

The initial offerings of a Gold Ale & Pale Ale from Independent Brewing Co
The initial offerings of a Gold Ale & Pale Ale from Independent Brewing Co
The Red Ale followed a few weeks later
The Red Ale followed a few weeks later

Back across the county where there’s “stonewalls and the grass is green”, we come across N17, the brainchild of Tuam-native Sarah Roarty. Launched at the Alltech Brews & Food Fair, N17 has two beers currently lined up for distribution (brewed at the moment down in Kinsale), a rye ale and an oatmeal stout. Both are fantastic according to the brewery’s self-proclaimed biggest champion in the shape of Tim O’Rourke. They were both It’s certainly going to be interesting to see how this brewery develops over the years and the inevitable tweets that will no doubt take place to the recipes, along with new additions of course. The brewery’s also attracting a lot of attenton due to Sarah’s determination to sustainably re-use a lot of the waste from brewing process. So far she has found potential in developing a mushroom business, in fish farming and production of dog biscuits. This is not only a way of promoting sustainable production but also a mechanism for realising additional revenue streams (I know of one brewery in the US who is also in the soap business). So look out of N17 winning awards for its sustainable consciousness in addition to brewing (won a bronze medal for the Oatmeal Stout in the Dublin Cup). Forgive me for a second reference to some other well-known natives of Tuam, the Saw Doctors but these beers could have someone no longer wishing they were on that N17 but rather can they have a pint of something from N17.

One of the coolest logos out there
One of the coolest logos out there
N17's Sarah Roarty with Leo Moran of the Saw Doctors
N17’s Sarah Roarty with Leo Moran of the Saw Doctors (image courtesy of N17)

There are a number of other breweries surrounding Galway (e.g. couple in Mayo and one in Clare) which clearly shows that the West is clearly fast becoming a major brewing cluster in its own right. It will be interesting to see how the region develops along with Cork and of course a nod to Waterford (with Dungarvan and Metalman) over the years. Such information can provide useful lessons for how Ireland can inculcate not only small producers but also start-up businesses general. Each of the regions have the added benefit of having vibrant local food producers, presence of specialist pubs and restaurants. Hopefully Dublin will be next with the opening of new brewing facilities byRascals and Stone Barrel alongside those already brewing.

But for now it’s into the west with you!

Judgement day, good works and a measure of comedy thrown in

The final week in February proved to be a busy one for me in beer terms. This followed on from a trip to London for beer; drinking with film producers following the first test screening of an excellent new documentary on Christina Noble; and an opportunity to try out the new pub in the Cottage Group empire, Alfie Byrnes.

The week began for me travelling down to Galway for a charity beer tasting to raise funds for a rugby tour to London for the youth team of Oughterard RFC. Organised by Paul Fogarty of Probus Wines, the beer tasting was to take place alongside a comedy set by impressionist Sean Clancy (more on him later) ahead of the England-Irish rugby match. Given the result, it was better that we had gotten this out of the way ahead of the match. I had about 10 minutes or so to introduce the art of beer tasting, styles and the 5 beers they were going to try. Did I mention that I did this Shane MacGowan-esque style on stage in The Boat Inn with a mic in one hand and a beer in the other. I’d like to think though that I was slightly more coherent.

The tasting line-up ahead of the England-Ireland match

The beers to be sampled (kindly donated by Premier International and the breweries themselves) were the Five Lamps Lager, Dungarvan Copper Coast, Galway Hooker, Boom from Stone Barrel and Kinnegar’s Yannaroddy Porter. Lager drinkers were impressed by the Five Lamps naturally but it was introducing other beer styles that really got them thinking that there’s something to this craft thing, that it’s not just hype and the lot. Copper Coast showed what an Irish red could be and I must admit I had a bottle or two during the match, which apart from Rob Kearney’s try was the only real highlight during the 80 minutes. Many had seen and heard of Galway Hooker with only one or two actually having tried it. This gave them a flavour of what was available on their doorstep. However, they loved the session IPA that is Stone Barrel’s Boom. Yannaroddy has been reintroduced since it first emerged as a Christmas seasonal in 2013. The coconut has been toned down, giving the ruby porter a pleasant, dryness with a fuller body. It comes complete with espresso and chocolate notes.

The following Wednesday saw a special booking for a beer tasting for a work outing. This had the added bonus in that there were predominantly non-Irish so it was another opportunity to show the great beers on offer in this country. All of them were scientists and some had serious sensory training behind them due to their work in the cosmetics industry. I decided to stick to the virtually the same line-up as in Galway. I also used it as an opportunity to try the Red from Independent Brewing Company. The tasting was good fun because many were wine drinkers and they were impressed how some of the beers matched up to the food on offer.

Time for #BPBPBT

Thursday saw the usual tasting session at Probus Wines, except this was different. First, there was the opportunity to try the new beer from the Brown Paper Bag Project in a blind tasting (started elsewhere at 6.45pm but ours started 15 minutes later, phones were banned until then). Second, Sean Clancy made an appearance in what proved to be his Dublin debut. This was novel, a comedy routine in an off licence. We were treated to the musings of Francis Brennan (which featured a cocktail made from Dutch Gold, Buckfast & polo mints, which melted the plastic cup it was served in), Enda Kenny, George Hook, Jose Mourniho and a whole host of other Irish and international notables.

Michael Healy-Rae putting in an appearance during Thursday’s tasting
It’s not a proper performance without a poem recital by Michael D.

Some of the beers tasted on the night included Hop City Barking Squirrel Lager (pleasant Vienna red), Trooper from Robinsons (always enjoyable), O’Hara’s Barley Wine aged in Irish whiskey barrels for 90 days. This was the third annual edition of a barrel aged beer from Carlow Brewing Company. This worked because the barley wine was quite dry to start with so it picked up warming notes from the whiskey barrel with a more-rounded and refined sweetness. This works and might win over those often put off by sweeter versions of the style. Of course the raison d’être of the beer tasting was the explosive new release (the bottles literally erupted everywhere) from the Brown Paper Bag Project. Tasted blind, there were citrus notes with a slight sourness on top of a hazy wheat body. On tasting, salt became clearly detectable and pointed to the beer as a Gøse. As the beer opened up (it wasn’t over chilled in the first place), a subtle sweetness took over. Some people viewed this as a take it or leave it beer, which was good for us that enjoyed it (and also that given the hype around #BPBPBT, there aren’t too many bottles still floating around.

The anticipation is mighty, the mood is tense
And the beer is…

Finally, the week ended being asked to judge at the National Homebrewing Competition Now in its second year, there were almost 400 entries from 140 brewers. The competition was held in The Church (venue for the forthcoming European Beer Bloggers Conference) and it was an early start for judges, who were asked to be there by 9.30am on a Saturday morning. I had to be good the night before because I didn’t want my palate to be shot so I limited myself to a couple of post work pints and an opportunity to catch up with Bo Bristle who were doing a tasting in Baggot Street Wines. I was asked to judge the American Amber and American Brown Ale categories. Judging at a competition is fairly intense as each beer is ruthlessly scrutinised and there’s a lot of form filling. It is a great experience and really gives you a sense of the wider beer movement in Ireland and the talent that is out there.

So that was the week that was, for me at least…

Forget the sleeps to Christmas, only 100 days to St. Patrick’s Day

Sitting in an Irish bar in Philadelphia airport, I was struck by the countdown clock to St. Patrick’s Day provided by Guinness. Last Sunday there was 106 days to do, which means today marks the 100-day countdown. Why is this important? We’ll for a start, it’s the first St.Patrick’s Day since the Arthur’s Day brouhaha and it will be interesting if the media roundly criticise the drink culture associated with the celebrations and the unofficial sponsor from St. James’ Gate. Second, the 17 March falls on a Monday so it’ll be a long weekend once more. This affords an opportunity to celebrate the independent beers of Ireland. Is this an opportunity to collectively promote these breweries and the ones that are about to be launched. Is their a piece of the festivities that we can claim as our own. There’s an opportunity to build on the beer festival in the IFSC and the individual celebrations of the specialist beer bars. With a festival that supposedly champions Irishness, we should make a bigger effort to promote the Irish independents to a wider audience. Such efforts could be as little as a type of 1% programme (e.g. buy a craft beer pint for a mate that drinks nothing but macros etc) or it could be something bigger. What that could be I don’t know but there’s an opportunity there that we should take advantage of.

Who knows what the future could bring but given the huge American interest in this holiday, we should aim for a platform to introduce some of the Irish brewing talent to the US. Yes, O’Hara’s and the Porterhouse have made an entry to the US market. I can only imagine what the celebrations would be like in Fraunces Tavern. However, American craft breweries have introduced a number of St. Patrick’s seasonal brews (yes, some of them are green including one produced by Dogfish Head). This could be an opportunity for special collaboration brews, involving breweries at home. Also, perhaps we could also encourage those who refer it to St. Patty’s Day to stop it. We should take inspiration from the Dungarvan-Adnams Stout produced for Wetherspoons this year.

Given the global appeal of St. Patrick’s Day, the potential to make place the Irish craft beer scene in the popular imagination remains untapped.

Enjoy the Founders 5 in Ireland

Michigan is one of those States that does not necessarily have strong connections with Ireland. It’s heavily influenced by Germanic immigration. Known because of the American auto-industry, Motown and Detroit is the home town of 8-miler Eminem and its most famous son, Beverly Hills Cop Axel Foley.  However, beers from Founders Brewing Co. from Grand Rapids have made it over this side of the Atlantic and they can create a new affinity with the Great Lakes State. In the brewery’s own words it has “been lucky to evolve into one of the highest recognized breweries in the United States” and has been “ranked in the top four breweries in the world by Ratebeer.com for the past four years in a row (4th in 2010, 2nd in 2011 and 2012, 3rd in 2013)”.

I have had the opportunity to spend some time visiting my wife’s family in Michigan and it quickly became apparent that this is a State that is serious about its beer. I suppose it would have to be the case because it’s bloody freezing there (I would like to point out that I didn’t visit in the summer and it was snowing when I was there at the beginning of October). Big, bold and hoppy flavours abound (Shorts Brewing Co. up in Bellaire, Michigan is a great example – it also has ballroom dancing if you’re that way inclined). Michiganders are a hardy bunch all the more so because of the hardships the State has endured over the slow decline of heavy industry and naturally, they needed the beers to match.

American craft breweries are famous for having a “philosophy”. They’re held in the same reverential awe like Jerry Maguire’s “The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business” mission statement. In the case of Founders, the company’s “simple” philosophy is:  “We don’t brew beer for the masses. Instead, our beers are crafted for a chosen few, a small cadre of renegades and rebels who enjoy a beer that pushes the limits of what is commonly accepted as taste. In short, we make beer for people like us.”

Five beers from Founders’ core range have made it to Ireland and they give a great insight to Michigan beer. Unfortunately, due to a beer tasting that I was hosting I was unable to attend the event in Dublin on 10 October where Drogheda-native Niall Little who from the Founders’ sales team (coincidentally he worked with one of my wife’s cousins in a previous distribution company) introduced the beers to a Dublin audience. Apparently they’re obsessed with drinking beers as fresh as possible over in Founders and you can read an excellent piece by @Beermack_ on the event. So having all five beers at home, I naturally decided to have a little tasting by myself. I also got into the spirit by watching some of the chat between my Michigander relatives about the college football games (they seem to be equally split between Michigan State and the Wolverines). Interestingly, Michigan got beaten in overtime by Penn State, who will be playing in Croke Park next August.

All-day IPA (4.7%)

Plenty of pine and orangey citrus aroma with a tangerine-sweet flavour. Certainly not full bodied and as it says on the tin (or label in this case), it can be enjoyed all day long. Labelling hints at outdoors and the pine aroma recreates this in a glass. Perfectly sessionable with a bitter kick to boot. What’s great is that this beer adds the the growing number of fantastic sub-5% abv hoppy beers on sale in Ireland (e.g. Brewdog’s Dead Pony Club and Continuum by Hardknott).

Dry hopped Pale Ale (5.4%)

The ale with plenty of Cascade hops. Expecting the usual citrusy grapefruit traits but certainly not the sweet like aroma this beer displayed. Do you remember Trebor Fruit Salad? If you do, that’s the type of pinapple perfume you get on this beer. The beer’s freshness gave the aroma a strong reminiscence of recently harvested red fruits particularly strawberry and cranberry. Extremely dry tasting, the fruit flavours try to break through at first but they quickly surrender.

Centennial IPA (7.2%)

Can be summed up as sweet peach and pineapple in a glass. Founders may upset hopheads because they like to focus on balance and they back up their beers with a sweet malt body. The initially a sweet taste makes a swift but smooth transition to a dry, bitter body. Pleasantly bitter for a straight-up IPA.

Founders Porter (6.5%)

American brewers brew some remarkable porters and serious breweries all have at least one excellent porter in their repertoire. Founders is no different and theirs is extremely rich with a sweet velvet full-body. It has the hallmarks of a good Belgian Dubbel but not as sweet as a barley wine. Vinous notes on the nose. Everything signals chocolate from its tan head to its black oil appearance to its flavour of course. There’s s smoky aftertaste and sharp dark chocolate bitterness – a combination from the black malts and the copious amount of hops added.

Dirty bastard (8.5%)

I’m not a whiskey drinker but this beer has those familiar vanilla notes that you would find in Jameson. I do however like Scotch Ales but recognise that they are an acquired taste. This is very much in the category of sipping beers, much like McChouffe. Sweet notes coming through upon tasting but the vanilla flavours remain throughout. The ale is chewy in keeping with its toffee-like flavours but thankfully it is not overly sweet. There’s a tiny lacing for a head and a ruby reddish/ruddy brown appearance. Apparently this is their flagship beer.