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.

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.

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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.

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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.