Smithwicks strikes back

While the independent or craft segment may still be relatively small beer (0.8% in Ireland, 6.3% in the US), macro-breweries are increasingly looking to shore up their market share through the introduction of new products. It is the rate of growth in the “craft” sector that has raised their eyebrows. We’re seeing new lines of beers being introduced alongside their core brands. We just have to look to the introduction of Smithwicks Pale Ale and Calendonian Smooth into the Irish market within the past twelve months. There may be a lot of merit in the “consumer is favouring choice” argument as there seems to be a move away from manufacturing innovation to product innovation. Take for instance the range of Guinness products targeted primarily at the US market – Black Lager, Generous Ale and Red Harvest Stout. Perhaps in the Irish case it is also a response to the threat of Molson Coors ramping up their standing in the Irish market.

Smithwicks recently launched a new offering in the form of Winter Spirit, a 4.5% abv ale. It has a rich, ruby body that is still in keeping with the traditional Smithwicks red. It has a slight blackcurrant aroma, which is even more reminiscent of a bag of wine gums or jelly.  The taste is initially sweet on but becomes toastier as you progress.  It is fairly dry.  It almost lacks something in the body and has not the complexity nor weight you’d expect in a winter seasonal. It is slightly cloying and sweet fruits definitely dominate. On the bottle, they say biscuit flavours so I suppose the closest would be Jam Dodgers. Of course with any good Irish red, there are hints of dry roasted peanuts and toffee nut towards the end. While it’s not a winter ale, it is nevertheless an interesting variation on the standard Smithwicks and not simply a slightly more alcoholic version.

Musings on the best Irish beer fest yet

The All-Ireland Craft Beer and Cider Festival has attracted a lot of attention online and save from repeating a previous post, I have opted to provide a series of short observations on the festival. Oh and did I mention that I attended all four days because where else would I be!

Packed house on Festival Saturday

In no particular order:

  1. Biggest festival yet! Huge crowds over the four days (over 10,000 according to Ruben @TaleofAle). It was packed on the Friday and many had made their way up from the Aviva after the Ireland-Sweden march but Saturday was something else. The crowds simply kept on coming with a queue to get in and an even bigger one at the token stand.  if keeps growing like this, it’ll probably have to move into the main hall next door.
  2. Two collaboration brews can be best described as sweet. The O’Hara’s/JW Sweetman’s version containing honey. There’s a story to be told about it but can be best summed up as there’s a group of people out there nerdier than beer enthusiasts – honey people! Troubled Hooker from guess which two breweries (see my previous post if you can’t for the life of you work out who it is) was a mistake gone well. It was supposed to be a Double IPA but became almost a sweet Belgian Tripel, even sweeter than Kwak.
  3. Dry-hopped Irish reds, what’s the point? The malt sweetness is there for a reason. Leave the hops for the “Irish” pale ales & co.
  4. The Hop Randall festival goes to try the Kinsale Pale Ale with added Simcoe, Citra and Nelson Sauvin. The Hop Randall  has now been introduced by the Bull and Castle and the Bierhaus in Cork . Has it already been condemned to the realm of gimmick?
  5. Franciscan Well wasn’t picketed by members of the craft purist front and the casks ran dry fairly early on. Punters weren’t put off by this big beer-owned concern.
  6. In previous years Dungarvan trialled their seasonal beers for the following year (Comeragh Challenger and Mahon Falls). Cormac brought six variants with him, including a Saison, Amber Ale, Mild, session DIPA, Wit IPA and an IPA. I  still don’t know which or if any are scheduled for release  in 2014.
  7. Every time the show the All-Ireland Hurling Final On festival Sunday, it ends in a draw.
  8. In past years people flocked to the White Gypsy stand to imbibe on the stronger beers available. However, I don’t know what is happening down in Templemore as a string of very fine session beers turned up at this year’s festival.
  9. Did every band at the festival do a cover of The Lumineers’ Ho Hey? Don’t get me started about the Johnny Cash covers!
  10. Two barley wines at the festival and two were duly sampled. I know barley wines are known for their port/sherry like comparisons but I’m not going to go into how one was sweet (Porterhouse) and one was dry (O’Hara’s). That’s just going too far!
  11. Putting the newer breweries in one corner (although Brú was across the way) grouped in one corner was a great way of concentrating interest in them. One thing noticed is that the newer breweries have fantastic branding and T-shorts for sale (in the past this sort of behaviour was confined to Metalman and the Porterhouse).
  12. Beers to look out for include Eight Degrees’ Amber Ella (might give Howling Gale Ale a run for its money in the popularity stakes), Kinsale Pale Ale (a great beer to show to festival novices that Ireland can match Sierra Nevada et al), Mountain Man’s Hairy Goat (nice copper ale for the autumn) and hopefully Five Lamps will release the darker version of their Liberties Ale (they have a lager so why put out a golden ale?).
The fantastic branding from some of the newer breweries at the festival

 

Revolution in Red, White & Brew

The week being in it, there’s nothing more appropriate than to start with the country where the revolutionary beer war began. Ever since that lunch in the original Spaghetti Factory back in 1965 where Fritz Maytag learnt of the impending closure of his favourite brewery and purchasing a 51% shareholding the very next day, the slow re-introduction of choice and taste into the American beer market began.

628x471

Fritz Maytag has to be viewed as one of the original authors of the declaration of independent choice. It was his original vision of “small is beautiful” along with the 1975 tax breaks then effectively defined the term of “craft” beer. The Brewers Association defines such breweries as “small, independent and traditional” and that was Anchor Steam to the core.

Aspiring brewers such as Ken Grossman, who would go onto found Sierra Nevada, paid pilgrimage to the brewery to see how it could be done, as well as searching out sage advice from another early revolutionary, Jack McAuliffe. The New Albion Brewery was the first “new” brewery to be established from the ground-up, unfortunately it was to close in 1982 but its legacy lives on. Boston Beer Company recently produced a beer dedicated to this founding father.

Jim Koch started what was to become the largest US independent brewery (along with DG Yuengling and Sons) in 1984, with Boston Beer Company’s Sam Adams being brewed in Pittsburg. On the night of Paul Revere’s famous ride to warn people that the British were coming, it was to warn John Hancock and Sam Adams that there were to be arrested. They were in Lexington at the time and so began the American War of Independence. Revere’s actions to warn Sam Adams and co was to be commemorated by Maytag through the special release of Liberty Ale on the the bicentennial of the event in 1975. There was no more appropriate beer to pay homage to this historic event as the beer itself was to create history in the craft beer movement. It was the first beer to be brewed using the Cascade hop, which was only developed in 1970. While the beer itself disappeared soon after and not to be released again until 1983, it changed history. Sierra Nevada took note and the Cascade hop was to be the backbone of its Pale Ale, which was released in 1981.

Tasting Liberty Ale on 4 July, I was met by what is now the familiar floral, citrus and pine aromas imparted by Cascade. What is striking is that it does also give an extremely pleasant bitterness to the beer. This is overlooked these days due to high- and super-alpha hops. We forget that this hop helped define “hoppy” beers and it became the ubiquitous hop to be used in practically all subsequent American pale ales. I can only imagine what it must have been like to taste this beer in comparison to the other beers that were available almost 40 years ago.

liberty-bio

Of course there were other factors at play that helped sow the seeds of the revolution. At the beginning of the 1970s on the west coast beginning in California and expanding northwards, there existed some of the key elements that contributed to growth of the of the craft beer movement. These included a young population that had experience of beers from Europe and the motivation to do something different, a spirit of bending the rules by home-brewing when it was still illegal, a sense of place and pride in locally produced food etc. Let us not forget that the American wine industry was beginning to flourish at this time and in the similar locations. The University of California – Davis employing Michael Lewis in 1970 as America’s first full time professor of brewing science. Lewis would go on to train a vast army of brewers, as well as conducting key research and sharing his wisdom amongst aspiring beer entrepreneurs. The craft beer movement became identified with a strong spirit of fraternity because brewers new the odds were stacked against them.

By 1979, there were only 89 breweries remaining in the US. Prohibition and increasing consolidation along with rapid growth in the middle class hooked on drinking light and adjunct packed lager at home had all contributed to this decline. Thankfully today there are 2,403 working craft breweries across America with another 1,528 in planning stages (May 2012). When Maytag sold his brewery to the Griffin Group (one of the backers of BrewDog) in 2010, he was safe in the knowledge that choice in the beer market has been well and truly established.