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/

Brewing up new business, the sequel

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With the publication of last week’s report of the Sean O’Sullivan-chaired Entrepreneurship Forum the second annual Alltech International Craft Brews & Food Fair (6-8 February in the Convention Centre Dublin) couldn’t come at a better time. Last July’s event featured an enterprise pillar because let’s face it Ireland needs to do more in terms of new business start-ups. Renewed attention is being put on getting growth back into the domestic economy and craft beer is clearly bucking the trend.

A key focus of this year’s event will be on supporting and expanding an essential part of the craft beer industry – the pub trade. A dedicated conference will be held over a day and half discussing measures at reinvigorating the sector, principally through craft beer and ultimately greater choice for the consumer. We have seen a lot of media attention given to the pub trade, which has not just focused on closures but also on those that are turning around distressed pubs, new high profile entrants to the market such as Wetherspoons and those hoping to redefine the distribution business to pubs through a dedicated craft beer focus. Given the importance of pubs to communities and the part they play in our overall tourist offering, it is heartening to see that approximately 300 pubs have registered to attend. Changing the model for the Irish pub through an expanded beer range, quality Irish food or for the more ambitious, prepared to brew onsite will further reinforce the overall Irish craft beer industry.

The mainstay of the event will be “Craft Brews and Food Fair” itself featuring over 50 breweries from around the world paired with 15 of Ireland’s finest artisan food producers. It will be open to the public on the Friday (5pm-9pm) and Saturday (12pm-9pm), as well as there being set trade sessions during the event. Tickets are €15, which include four free drinks and there will be lots of food to sample as well. They can be purchased on the door or in advance here.

There will be a number of sensory sessions throughout the fair in which participants will get the opportunity to learn about tasting beers, matching beer to food, whiskey and gin tastings, as well as of course learning more about Alltech’s very own Kentucky beers from head brewer Ken Lee. For those more enthusiastic, Tim O’Rourke will be back and along with a panel of beer experts will be running a separate day-long Alltech Academy Sensory Class on 6 February with the opportunity to take an exam to become an “Alltech Certified Beer Taster”. This course has to be booked separately here.

Small smaple of beers announced, including new entrants on the Irish beer scene

It will be interesting to see the beers that will be on offer during the fair. I’m looking forward to trying beers from new Irish breweries such as N17, Independent Brewing Co and Rascals Brewery. Also, the fair will feature a number of international breweries (such as Coisbo Beer from Denmark) that soon could be featuring on shelves of off licences or on draft around the country. Last year, attendees had the good fortune of encountering Hardknott’s Queboid and Beavertown’s Gamma Ray. Hardknott have an excellent array of beers on sale in Ireland and Beavertown thankfully are due here momentarily.

The Dublin Craft Beer Cup will be awarded for a second time, with the trophy making the short trip down the M1 from Lisburn, home of Hilden Brewery. The inaugural winner was of course Twisted Hop. The number of entries in the Dublin Beer Cup 2014 is expected to be 200 beers from at least 100 breweries in 16 countries, which goes to show that there’s prestige to being successful in such competitions and there’s a real opportunity to establish this as one of the premier competitions out there. The calibre of the beer entered last year was exceptional so it will be interesting to see the full list of entrants and the medal winners at the conference. Judging is expected to get underway on Tuesday 4 February with the winner being announced at lunchtime on Saturday.

Thinking back, it was at July’s event that I met Sam Black of Kinsale craft brewing fame and the lads from Brú brewery, as well as hearing about plans for a new brewery in Wicklow. I wonder by the time the third incarnation of this event comes around not only what the brewing landscape will look like but also what changes pubs will make on foot of what they will discover next week. All anyone will have to do is to heed Dr. Pearse Ryan’s three-day pep talk.

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.