Irish Beer & Whiskey Fest

The Irish Beer & Whiskey Fest kicked off yesterday and for five days I’ll be referring to the RDS as a second home. It would be rude not to when it’s taking place practically around the corner.

Even beer festivals cannot escape the Global Greening initiative
Even beer festivals cannot escape the Global Greening initiative

This festival marks the evolution of the Irish beer festival that took place around St Patrick’s Day in the IFSC over the past few years. However, those festivals were more of a large craft beer bar where breweries sent kegs rather than be present themselves.

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It’s by the organisers of the excellent Irish Craft Beer and Cider festival that takes in the RDS every September. This time it takes place in the Main Hall, a space that’s considerably bigger than the Industries Hall. The Main Hall may bring back memories for some of participating in the Young Scientist Exhibition (even as far back as when Aer Lingus used to sponsor it).

Whiskey always had a place in the September edition but it has gained more prominent billing for this festival. 7 cider makers are also represented and the food offering is the biggest yet.

19 breweries are present. Yes, this is a drop in the number of stands when compared to the last two editions of September festival. However, it’s been a fairly packed calendar for beer events of late with the Alltech Craft Brews & Food just a fortnight ago. Brewers have had to choose what festivals to focus on, how much beer to have on hand to attend them etc. Don’t worry there’s plenty of good beer to be had at the festival.

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Some to look out for include Mountain Man’s Sneaky Owl; Searbh Rua (Imperial Sour Red) and Coffee Rocket by White Hag; Enigma and Polar Vortex from Eight Degrees; and Buck It by Black Donkey. There’s cask beers on offer too so be on the look out for O’Hara’s Leann Follain and three from Station Works (stout, blonde & brown). These are of course those that I tried on day 1 of the festival. There’s plenty of good beer on offer from Trouble Brewing, Independent Brewing, Alltech Lexington Brewing, Rye River (also pouring Innis & Gunn and Coisbo), Porterhouse, Franciscan Well, Rising Sons, O’Brother Brewing, White Gypsy, Wicklow Brewing and Wicklow Wolf.

So far it’s shaping up to be a great festival. The new hall has given it a more spacious feeling, somewhat reminiscent of the early years of the September’s festival. It’s €2.50 for a half pint though above 7% beers are served in thirds. Some stands will give you a pint but not in the official festival glass. If you want a pint, you’ll have to make do with plastic.

Hopefully you get the opportunity to drop in in this festival.

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…

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.