Craft beer’s part of new Government 10 year growth strategy

Food Wise 2025, the new national strategic report for the agri-food sector was published this week. Craft beer and whiskey are designated key areas of focus over the next decade. This is the latest acknowledgement by Government that efforts must be made to allow these producers to continue to grow and expand.

The overall objective for beer and whiskey is to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of the producers. A dedicated sectoral strategy is needed setting out “supports, targets and best practice for the entry, development and progression of these companies to 2025”. An increase in R&D and innovation across the sector is needed but for that to happen there needs to be a 10% increase in funding per annum. The need to develop skills in brewing and distilling is recognised, particularly in the areas of mentoring and training. I would like to see this progressed further into the development of a formal apprenticeship scheme for aspiring brewers. This would result in a blend of formal qualifications and on-the-job experience in a structured format.

Develop a sectoral strategy for food and drink SMEs, which sets out supports, targets and best practice for the entry, development and progression of these companies to 2025      Food Wise 2025

It is little surprise that a key focus is in boosting export sales. We’re a small island with a small but growing population. Yes, there’s plenty of room for breweries to expand at home but for those that want to, we need to help them gain access to international markets. One just needs to look at the approach that Carlow Brewing Co took all those years ago, a big effort in exporting because the market wasn’t really available in the country. That was when there were only a handful of craft breweries. We’ve over 70 now and the domestic market still has a long way to go in order to open fully to them. That is not to say that craft isn’t growing, it is and will continue to do so. I’m just saying a craft beer export strategy could really boost those already able to ship internationally. However, we also need to support those not yet ready but have aspirations to do so. Food Wise 2025 recognises the need to “continue to work directly with indigenous companies to identify new export market opportunities and develop services and supports for companies to facilitate export growth”. It also sees that specific market knowledge of the US market needs to be provided. This maybe more targeted at whiskey but there’s room for Irish craft beer too. The time has never been better for crafting an export strategy for beer.

Continue to work directly with indigenous companies to identify new export market opportunities and develop services and supports for companies to facilitate export growth   Food Wise 2025

The focus on beer in whiskey and beer in the report is hardly surprising. Minister for Agriculture and the Marine, Simon Coveney TD has been a more than a fair share of beer events during this time in the department. It’s a good news story, entrepreneurs starting up, producing products in the country and looking to export – what more could you need! However, there’s a growing trend that whiskey is getting more attention than craft beer. Yes, a distillery requires far more investment in capital than a brewery, not least with the three years needed for maturation alone. Also, whiskey has the snob factor and beer suffers unfairly for not been seen as civilised as other mainstream alcoholic drinks, with the possible exception of cider. The need to “develop an Irish Whiskey and food pairing trail as a major tourist attraction and to differentiate Irish food and drink produce” is singled out but we should also be pushing for a brewery tap licence to be introduced.

Beer, cider and whiskey makers must be equally respected, supported and championed. They all tell the same story. We can produce excellent, diverse and quality products on this small island of ours.

Grilling the property rights of the Irish red ale

With the weather showing signs of summer and then not again, BBQ season is upon us. When I say BBQ, I mean grilling in the truest context and not slow roasting for 24 hours or longer. Lighting a BBQ can make it seem that way though. Think of all the hours of enjoyment standing over it trying to get the coals to catch fire. It’s made all worse by people sitting around watching and remarking on your every move. Comments such “did you use lighter fluid?” or the “quick fire bag of coal is brilliant” hitting you like accusatory daggers. Then eventually it lights, there may be an uneven heat across the grill requiring the frantic shuffling of burgers or whatnot around so they don’t burn too quickly. At least having beer on hand can take some of the edge off of the hassle of cooking al fresco.

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Yesterday, I had an excuse to work through a whole range of red ales (sadly Bay Ale from Galway Ale had disappeared from the fridge by the time I got there). It’s interesting putting different reds, like other beer styles, together to compare variations. Red ale is much maligned by the craft drinker, all too easily dismissed as one-dimensional or worse. For someone who was a fan of Writer’s Red (aka Rebel Red) by Franciscan Well and who drank it by the pitcher full in The Gingerman, I will always have a fondness for the style. At times I have acted in a manner that can only be described as quite frankly a bizarre sense of patriotism in standing up for the style to some CAMRA members all too quick to tell you what they think of it – it’s too gassy, too sweet etc.

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The style as we know it mightn’t be that old nor originating here but there’s no doubt that it has become associated with us. Classic reds may have similar flavour profiles to dry roasted peanuts, some may be too heavy on the caramel and others draw on bitterness for their identity. Who knows what the future holds for this style? It would perhaps be a stretch to see an attempt to adopt a Geographical Indicator status for the Irish red. The road is  certainly open under the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) for more products to adopt such status. Imagine, the likes of George Killian’s Irish Red having to alter its name. This is notwithstanding its very own identity crisis being marketed one time as an Irish red ale and now as a premium lager.

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It’s unlikely the Irish beer industry would look to adopt a GI for the Irish Red Ale. The industry doesn’t act like that, well not yet anyway. Of course, property rights have been a feature of the beer industry. Marketing rights have been a key driver so too has been use of proprietary productin techniques along with informal IP protection techniques. Look at the Trappist breweries distinguishing them from other abbey beers. However, as the market becomes more competitive, more friction can be expected. Thankfully a lot of this can be resolved through dialogue and in cases where it looks like such an approach will fail, public outcry has so far convinced brewers to keep things out of court. It won’t always be like that however. We’re already seeing whiskey producers refining the definition of what is Irish whiskey. Will Irish cream liquor be next?

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Brewers are already making moves to protect what can be called “Irish”, a measure to stop “crafty” imports from the UK and elsewhere. They clearly want to prevent the somewhat duplicitous nature of labelling á la Irish smoked salmon v smoked Irish salmon happening here. A logo is but one small step. A GI for red ale may achieve little too. Beer styles are often products of many places. You may have to be fairly brazen to claim ownership of a beer style either collectively or individually. Look what Anchor Brewing did with “steam beer”, although it was important for lambic producers.  I’d settle for a redoubling of the efforts to market craft beer and the people behind them by Government. This would match the enthusiasm of the brewers and consumers. Additionally, we have to give brewers the support to protect their IP, which dare I say it may include their brand, beer name and logos etc.

All of this may seem a fairly long train of thought but that’s what you get when you BBQ. Plenty of time to muse about all and sundry. At least I had a few red ales to keep me company.

“Sophisticated” establishments should not ignore beer

What does it take to strike a right balance between beer and other alcoholic products? Specialist beer bars are on the up and so too are places like vintage cocktail bars. The beer bar often has recognised the need to have a good whiskey selection for example. However, a recent visit to Dawson Street’s Peruke & Periwig shows that so-called “destination” bars have a long way to go.

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Perusing the spirit selection and extensive cocktail menu, one is struck by the attention to detail and the creative side to the business. The prices charged reflect this. Such places clearly want to be a top class drinking establishments. So why does this bar and others ignore their beer selection? Tell me it’s not based on the saying “beer and liquor makes you sicker“?

Want the place to ooze class and sophistication? Don’t ignore the beer offering. Meticulous attention is given to the spirits and other ingredients for cocktails. This is let down by a somewhat lazy approach to beer. A beer menu doesn’t have to run to a hundred different varieties.

The limited and largely unimpressive beer menu alongside the wine list. Dungarvan's beers used to feature but no more.
The limited and largely unimpressive beer menu. Dungarvan’s beers used to feature.

Why don’t they adopt a similar approach to wine? Bars such as these often have a limited but somewhat better thought-out wine selection. If you want class why not have a Trappist beer or two? An IPA is popular amongst the fashionistas. How about a locally produced lager? A couple of well-thought out beers is all you need and continues that attention to detail that is afforded to other alcoholic offerings.

It’s the little things that can let a place down and not maximise the enjoyment for more patrons. Yes, they’re popular and generate substantial income from their core offerings. It wouldn’t take a significant effort to improve the beers. Advertising the likes of Murphy’s Red alongside the likes of Yellow Spot doesn’t exude sophistication. Top class hotels are also guilty of this approach.

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It’s time for these places to step up their beer game. They can even make a big thing over stocking craft beers. As I was leaving Peruke & Periwig I heard two people in there for an after-work beer and they were looking for a “cleansing ale” or a “small pint” of some variety. Bars like this can go to places that we resent by cashing in on the “in thing”. So why ignore good beer? Until then, I’ll stick with ordering a coffee.