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/

Craft Beer and Spirits festival by the Porterhouse

On 10 April, the Porterhouse Brewing Company kicked off its Craft Beer and Spirits festival. Over the course of a seventeen day period, people paying custom to any of the Porterhouse bars will be able to enjoy a fresh look at Ireland’s craft brewers and distillers. It’s increasingly common to see beer and spirits events being twinned. Of course the Porterhouse has a significant foothold in both the beer and spirits markets. One also couldn’t fail to notice that the launch event coincided with the publication of research by the newly established Irish Whiskey Association showing that its sector alone will invest over €1 billion in Ireland in the next decade.

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On the beer front, the festival incorporates both draught and bottled beers from across Ireland’s craft scene. One can expect to see breweries such as Rascals, N17 Brewery, Kinnegar, Metalman, Hilden, Galway Hooker, O’Hara’s, Trouble Brewing, Mountain Man and Kinsale making an appearance at different times during the festival. Punters can take it old-school and check the blackboards on the walls of the bars or the individual ones under the row of guest taps for what’s pouring. There will be limited edition offerings too (not necessarily festival exclusives, however). I got to try Unite Pale Ale, the Irish version of the collaboration brew for International Women’s Day. Brewed down in Metalman, this 4% session ale had a good citrus bite to it.

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Naturally, the Porterhouse had its own offerings for the festival. Making a welcome return is Peter Mosley’s excellent Chocolate Truffle Stout and timely too, given that the festival straddles Easter. This drinks like one of those very expensive and luxurious hot chocolate drinks. There’s a rich powdery taste, reminiscent of the dusting around Belgium chocolate truffle (suppose it’s not just a clever name). It has a smooth finish, with dark chocolate notes being restrained by the richness. Also on draught will be their Celebration Stout, a 7% stout matured in whiskey casks, and matching the overall theme of the festival, available on draught. I must admit that I still have a few bottles of this in my beer cellar, put away for a special occasion.

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The festival will be occurring right across the by seven pubs in the Porterhouse family:  Parliament Street, Temple Bar, Nassau Street, Glasnevin, Bray, Cork, Covent Garden, London and Financial District New York. There will also be beer and spirits tastings held throughout the festival and to find out more, it’s best to check out their social media channels.

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.

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.