Britannia brews with a little bit of help from the Irish

For St. Patrick’s Day, one may think it’s unusual to turn to the book Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey. Yes, it covers the recent history of British beer industry and it’s a thoroughly engrossing read as well. However, the book’s subtitle is the “strange rebirth of British beer” and there are plenty of Irish connections throughout.

Many people would have heard of Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). This consumers’ movement has become a British institution in its own right. Few people may be aware that this organisation was conceived during a lad’s trip to Ireland back in March 1971. The idea for launching the “campaign” and early ideas for the acronym were discussed in and around St. James’ Gate. Eventually they settled on the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. The inaugural meeting of CAMRA took place Kruger Kavanagh’s pub in Dunquin, Co. Kerry on 23 March 1971 “probably”. While the four holidaymakers were already concerned with the state of British beer, apparently Smithwick’s “offered a nightmarish vision of what might to come to pass back home”. Although apparently the lads were also concerned by the lack of Indian restaurants in Ireland at the time and it is possible that if the beer was better, they might have gone and founded the Campaign for Indian Restaurants instead.

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The revival of brewing in London has a significantly Irish tinge to it. People may be familiar with Evin O’Riordain who founded The Kernel Brewery and has been part of the revived interest in the more American-inspired offerings. However, the capital’s brewing revival can be traced back to Patrick Fitzpatrick, a son of Irish publicans who operated pubs in London and Dublin. In 1977, Fitzpatrick was to open Godson’s Brewery, with the name borrowed from his hop merchant. Perhaps it was canny business sense not to use a distinctly Irish name back in the late 1970s Britain. He made a point of brewing naturally and stating that he used no added sugar or adjuncts. By 1980, his beers were available in Amsterdam but “before long, everything that could go wrong for Fitzpatrick did”.

Evin O'Riordain's The Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey has become a mecca for fans
Evin O’Riordain’s The Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey has become a mecca for fans

There’s a great section on the “pioneering” Belfast-native Brendan Dobbin. Rejected for a Guinness job, the Heriot-Watt educated brewer gained experience at Ringwood Brewery before moving to the new Antrim-based start-up Hilden Brewery in 1982. He firmly holds the view that he was the first microbrewer in Britain and Ireland to make lager. After a short stint with Hilden, Dobbin headed off to the US to discover new beer styles. Arriving too late for a brewing job, he worked with Campbell’s soup of all places. Nevertheless, he developed a knowledge of west coast hops, particularly Cascade and was to take this to Britain when he moved back in 1985. First, working back at Ringwood and then to opening his own brewery and pub in Manchester. The West Coast Brewery was located in the King’s Arms Hotel in a fairly rough area that bordered the Moss Side.

By the time Dobbin had opened the pub and brewery, he had already been experimenting for years with new world hops from as far away as New Zealand. This was cutting-edge stuff. He also had a knack for making clones. His clone for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale won prizes and the silver it took at the 1989 Great British Beer Festival brought Dobbin’s work to the attention (for the wrong reasons) of Ken Grossman and his Chico-based company. Dobbin renamed his beer Yakima Grande Pale Ale. While noted for his use of new and innovative hop varieties, Dobbin was “scornful” of ‘hop heads’ because “hops aren’t the only flavour in beer…So, no hops aren’t everything”.

The ex-King's Arms source: Gazza Prescott  http://hopcraftbrewing.blogspot.ie/2013_10_01_archive.html
The ex-King’s Arms source: Gazza Prescott http://hopcraftbrewing.blogspot.ie/2013_10_01_archive.html

By 1995, Dobbin decided he had enough of running the brewery and operating the pub in pre-urban regeneration and a little to mad for ‘Madchester’. He shut the brewery down and then focused for a while on installing brew-kits for the Firkin chain of brewpubs. He also consulted in Ireland for Clare’s Biddy Early Brewery as well as brewpubs Messrs Maguires and the Porterhouse in Temple Bar. One slight omission in this book is the role that the Porterhouse played in the London beer scene. When it opened in Covent Garden back in 2000, it was only the second specialist beer pub after Mark Dorber’s phenomenal White Horse (learnt from the book that the pub had an unwelcome nickname, “The Sloany Pony”)in Parson’s Green. Dobbin can be found down in Bandon, Co Cork as a quasi-hermit/banana grower. He recently was involved in installing the kit into yet another brewpub, this time for the Cotton Ball in Mayfield in Cork.

Great British Menu judge Oliver Peyton, popularly known for having “his face permanently contorted into a look of disgust and boredom”, makes an interesting appearance in the book. Mayo-born and Sligo-schooled Peyton became a beer importer in Britain during the 1980s and even held the exclusive UK rights for Sapparo. Before becoming a restauranteur, he also operated a number of clubs around London.

Oliver Peyton in front of the fermenters at Mash, Great Portland Street, London (1999) Source: National Portrait Gallery
Oliver Peyton in front of the fermenters at Mash, Great Portland Street, London (1999) Source: National Portrait Gallery

In 1996 he opened Mash and Air in Manchester, a venture that combined two different dining experiences and a microbrewery. He hired Alistair Hook, who would go and found Meantime Brewery, as head brewer. Lunch menus while pricey had a brewery tour and beer tasting thrown-in. Apparently the high prices “alienated more traditional beer enthusiasts” as did the did the styles brewed. According to Peyton, they were “nothing like the kind of one-dimensional British beers there were then”. This gastro-brewery concept was once thought to have the potential to expand like Belgo (remember that?) but it stopped at two locations. The Manchester operation ceased trading in 2000 and while the Great Portland Street restaurant is still going, Peyton’s no longer involved and brewing halted in 2007. However, the book hints that we may not have seen the last of his involvement in the beer scene and he may make a return as part of his burgeoning culinary empire.

It would be hard to write a book about British brewing today without mentioning Fergus Fitzgerald from Limerick, who’s head brewer at Adnams. He pops up in the book during a section on the uneasy relationship between ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer’. Adnams are long noted for real ale but have been taking on-board (they love their nautical references) some trends some may commonly associate with the ‘craft beer’ camp but they ignore the fact that breweries like Adnams were craft before craft. On their Innovation brand, he says: “Fair enough, it’s been ‘pimpled’ now, and has more horsepower, some shine new banners and has been fitted with a ‘banging’ sound system so you can hear it coming, but it’s still the same wagon”.

Limerick-native Fergus Fitzgerald is the Head Brewer of Adnams Source: Adnams
Limerick-native Fergus Fitzgerald is the Head Brewer of Adnams Source: Adnams

This book traces the revival of British beer from the early days of tie-wearing members of the Society for Preservation of Beers from the Wood to CAMRA to the rise of pubcos and Thatcher’s de-regulation of the pub industry. It takes in the faces and places of breweries started in the last forty years, including those counter-revolutionaries to real ale. At each step, there’s seems to be an Irish hand. There could be more as this book is peppered with names such as Sean Franklin, James Lynch, Roger McBride etc. It’s possible they have Irish roots too. Dave Bailey also gets a mention and he practically deserves a passport for the number of appearances he’s made at Irish festivals and Hardknott’s collaboration with Waterford’s Metalman Brewery.

Ultimately, it’s an enjoyable read and is written in a style that makes you feel part of the journey. It’s a skill that many history writers lack. You can also check out their musings on their blog: http://boakandbailey.com/

Have a picnic at a beer festival instead

Forget the Electric Picnic, the festival to be at the end of the summer is the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival. Continuing in its early September slot in the RDS for the third year, this edition promises to be bigger and better.


The festival got a bump in attendees in 2012, thanks to the weather and benefitting from the first Leinster home match of the season (supporters could benefit from 50% reduction in admission on presentation of match ticket). Nonetheless the organisers are determined to give it a go. Tis year’s festival is now a four-day affair. Gone are the three-day passes but Beoir members can benefit from discounted entry. There is also greater equilibrium in the beer festival calendar as beer festival took place a couple of weeks before the inaugural festival in 2011 and last year it was the weekend immediately following last year’s one. I wasn’t particularly complaining because needless to say I attended both (gutted to have missed the Secret Beer Garden 2013 in its new May slot).

The festival had a quiet start in 2011 and as all regular festivals needed time to grow in its surroundings. Noticeable improvements in terms of general attendee experience could be seen last year. This includes TVs to watch the important matches of the weekend (i.e. Ireland v Sweden and the All Ireland final) as well as the main stage being in the centre of the room as opposed to be at the end of the hall this first year. However, the key reason for being there is to enjoy the range of beers and ciders on offer and thankfully the opening hours have been revisited (Thursday 5pm-11.30pm, Friday & Saturday 12pm-12.30am, and Sunday 12pm-8pm). The later closing times are fantastic, particularly those who might be combining it with the football match nearby on Friday.

The festival allows attendees to get up close and personal with the breweries themselves. Unlike the in the IFSC, breweries operate stalls offering their wares. There are a number of first time debutants such as Donegal Brewing Co., Kinnegar, Kinsale Craft Brewing, Mountain Man, Five Lamps and newly launched Brú Brewing from Meath. It’s great to see Galway Hooker back at the festival after missing last year’s, bringing with them a range of beers that are nigh on impossible to imbibe outside of city of the tribes. J.W. Sweetman will be there under their new name, ownership and brewing skills. In 2011, my beer of the festival was Barrelhead contract brewed by Fransican Well for the guys behind Sweetman’s today and I can’t wait to try it once more.

Besides the array of fantastic stouts and porters, there will be a number of golden, pale, brown and amber ales. I am particularly looking forward to trying the range from Kinnegar (they were excellent when tried in bottles last June), Mountain Man’s Hairy Goat and Kinsale’s Pale Ale complete with hop randall in tow. Hopheads wont be disappointed this year with the Eight Degrees “hop off” contenders Cyclone and Hurricane putting in appearance, as well as Amber Ella made with the with aussie hop of the same name (used to be called stella but for some reason had to be changed). It will be interesting to get the opportunity to try the Franciscan Well’s IPA as well as Whitewater’s Hoppelhammer IPA because I’ve heard good things about the cask version.

Like all beer festivals, there will be a range of “special” brews. It’s great getting the opportunity to have first tastes of brews that may or not be put into wider production or based on feedback relieved they might be altered in future brews. Dungarvan will be bringing brews that will offer an insight into Cormac’s thinking of forthcoming brews. In 2011, they brought what was to become Comeragh Challenger and last year we got to try Mahon Falls then under thr imaginative name of Rye-PA. Alternatively festival specials might be brewed with unique adjuncts because of either the growing popularity of these beers or simply for the craic. The Metalman crew have done this in the past. This year we’ll see O’Hara’s Curim with peach as well as with mango and honey. Whitewater will be bringing Bee’s Endeavour, an ale with honey and root ginger. Let’s not forget that Trouble Brewing will once more be providing a scaled up version of the brew that scooped overall prize at the 2013 All Ireland Homebrew Competition, an oatmeal stout called Ormeau Dark. There will be also two collaboration brews at the festival the first being Troubled Hooker (can you guess the breweries involved?) the second one will be a Belgian-dubbel style from JW Sweetmans and O’Hara’s. Hopefully White Gypsy will be bring theirs and a side-by-side test could be done. There will be a noticeable increase in abv of the beers and offer and the accolade for the strongest on offer goes to the Porterhouse’s Louder. O’Hara’s will also have a barley wine. That’s two Irish barley wines at the same festival. Two! There were none last year.

For lager drinkers (much maligned by beer aficionados), there will be more choice over previous years. No longer will Dingle’s Tom Creans, Carrig lager and a couple from the Porterhouse. Brú will bring both a German-style pilsner and a Dortmunder, and people can get their malty lager fix from the Five Lamps. O’Hara’s bar will feature their Helles interpretation. The festival will show that lagers are not solely pale yellow thirst-quenchers and there is quite some depth to the cold fermented brews. Look to the amber lagers on offer from Whitewater’s Bullrush (no Belfast Lager this year) and the excellent sorachi ace-infused Sahara from Metalman. For those attending the festival with lager drinkers, why not introduce them to the range of Kölsch and other golden ales as a transition beer?

Finally, a lot of discussion has taken place online about the presence of Franciscan Well at the “craft” beer festival following their takeover by Molson Coors. For example, its beers have already been removed from the Beoir Finder app. This is an issue that will run and run until there’s an agreed definition for “craft” beer in an Irish context (or do we need one?). Alex aka @TheBeermack has a good overview of the debate on the presence of the Cork brewery at the festival and suggests that the festival might look at future years branding itself as “The Great Irish Beer and Cider Festival”. This would be inline with both its counterparts in the UK and the US where independent and large breweries participate and leave it to attendees to make up their minds. Although in the case of the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) with its focus on real ale, you wont see the likes of Brewdog, Kernel or Magic Rock participating. People will “nit-pick” until this issue is sorted but others may equally take umbrage over the presence of international offerings from Kentucky and Sierra Nevada at an “Irish” festival. There were rumblings at the GBBF over the increased presence of international beers and that they were taking attention away from the indigenous offerings. I certainly think it would be great to have additional beers from overseas at the festival because it could help boost international visitors to the festival (CAMRA and other EBCU-affiliated members get discounted admissions). Perhaps one year we may see Irish brewer’s Fergus Fitzgerald (Adnams) and Evin O’Riordain (Kernel) bring their brews to the festival. Sadly it was a missed opportunity this year during “The Gathering”.

All in all it promises to be a fantastic weekend in store for attendees. Apparently there will be ciders and whiskey as well but they’re really not my thing (at the moment) and perhaps an education will be required so if any one out there has the patience to teach me about them, get in touch.