It seems as though Ireland has become synonymous with beer. Rightly so—some Irish breweries have become worldwide phenomena. But the iconic Guinness and its distinctive stout didn’t always exist. Where did Irish beer begin? How did it become globally famous? And where is it going? If you love the occasional beverage, then this brief guide to Irish beer will give you insight into your favorite tipple—and maybe even give you some new suggestions to try.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BEER IN IRELAND
In Ireland, the climate and fertile soil naturally lent itself to farming barley—the main crop from which early beer was made. During the Middle Ages, that powerhouse era of monastic living, Irish monks were the brewers du jour. The monks were able to produce ale without hops and flavored it with various herbs. Beer was referred to amongst the monastic brothers as “liquid bread,” and may have been a substitute for the baked bread during Lent (because the Lenten fast was an important show of faith).
During the 17th century, the ladies began taking over the brewing from the brothers. Women, often called “alewives” began brewing their own beer at home, which they would sell in alehouses. Alehouses were usually normal houses (where people lived and worked), but they had a private room that was set aside specifically for people to come and have a drink. (This may be the very beginnings of the favorite “public houses” or pubs that we have come to know.). In this manner the alewives were able to earn a little extra on the side to help their families survive. By the 18th century, beer began being commercialized and sold on a larger scale.
THE BIRTH OF GUINNESS
We can’t really talk about Irish beer without talking about Arthur Guinness—the man, the myth, the legend. In 1759, Guinness moved from Leixlip to Dublin, where he began brewing beer in an abandoned brewery at St. James Gate. Within 10 years, Guinness was exporting his beer for consumption, and Guinness grew to become the largest brewery in Ireland by 1838. Around 1799, when a dark porter beer from London started becoming popular in Dublin, Guinness made the fateful decision to stop brewing ales and concentrated on perfecting a dark porter—the famous Guinness stout. Today, the Guinness brewery is still located at St. James Gate, and although they now produce a variety of styles of beer, the iconic Guinness black stout remains king.
The Guinness brewery has stood the test of time—surviving Ireland’s independence and both World War I and World War II. While there were around 200 breweries in Ireland in the early 1900s, many other breweries in Ireland were not able to keep up with Guinness’s pace, and dwindled or folded over time. However, there has been a resurgence of brewers’ craft in recent years, and Irish craft brewers have begun their own revolution.
THE IRISH CRAFT BREWERY REVOLUTION
When the beer industry started becoming successful, Ireland also began taxing malted barley. As a result, brewers began using roasted barley in their beer, which gave the beer a bitter taste that has become memorialized in the Irish Dry Stout. Over time, Guinness and other international breweries began buying out other Irish breweries, which limited the diversity of Irish beer styles. While Guinness Stout was internationally popular, you might be hard-pressed to identify another Irish style beer. However, this would not last forever.
Beginning in the 1980s, the craft beer movement started to gain some traction in Ireland. Rather than a crackpot quirky idea that has no future, there has been something of a cultural movement to embrace craft beers, with many pubs looking to offer high-quality beers that complement their menus. Today, most pubs and restaurants offer at least some kind of craft beer on their beverage list. While you can always order your trusty large-scale beer, there is something about the craft brew that seems special. Often you see craft brewers that are willing and able to work with the pub and restaurant industry to promote new taps, seasonal offerings, or new bottles.
Not only are the craft breweries moving full steam ahead, but the movement has also allowed smaller brewers to play with their offerings. There is now a little something for every taste and preference, whether you’re looking for lower or higher alcohol, fruit or sours, Pilsners, Stouts, Lagers, or Porters. The variety of Irish craft beer takes on an astounding abundance.
YOUR GUIDE TO IRISH BREWERIES
If you’re wanting a drink by now, you’re not alone. All this talk about beer has us thirsty, too. But what to drink? Let’s have a look at some of the Irish breweries that inspired this walk through beer history.
While Guinness is famous for its distinctive black stout, it currently offers a variety of beers for a range of tastes. Their lineup includes a Nitro IPA (5.8% ABV), the Dublin Porter (3.8% ABV), the Antwerpen Stout (which is on the high end of alcoholic content, with an 8% ABV), a Rye Pale Ale (5% ABV), and the Golden Ale (4.5% ABV). Of course, this list of Guinness offerings is not comprehensive—there’s a reason this brewery has been a powerhouse since the beginning. If you’re looking for an entry into the Irish beer experience, however, Guinness is a good place to start. (“Our Beers.” Guinness.com. https://www.guinness.com/en-us/our-beers/)
Founded by John Smithwick in 1710, Smithwick’s brewery hearkens back to the monastic traditions of Irish beer. The brewery itself is on the site of a Franciscan monastery. In 1964, Guinness bought a controlling share in the Smithwick’s business.
If you go to order a Smithwick’s in the pub, make sure you pronounce it properly. “Smith-wicks” will give you away as someone who either isn’t a native or doesn’t know the beer. If you say “Smid-icks,” you’re more likely to sound like a pro. Whatever you do, don’t pronounce the W.
Smithwick’s offers a traditional Irish Red Ale at 3.8% ABV, blending mild hops, sweet malt, and roasted barley to produce a ruby red color and a balanced flavor. The Smithwick’s Pale Ale uses Amarillo hops for a full, grassy, fruity flavor at 4.5% ABV, and the Atlantic Blonde Ale (4.1% ABV) is a crisp selection, with a citrus aroma and malty flavor.
James J. Murphy & Co. began brewing beer in County Cork in 1856. By 1861, they were producing over 40,000 barrels of beer, making them one of the biggest breweries in Ireland. Murphy’s Stout won the gold medal at the 1892 Brewers and Allied Trades Exhibition in Dublin, and the brewery’s tradition in brewing excellence continues to the present day.
While their most recognizable beer may be the Irish Stout (4.0% ABV), Murphy’s also produces and Irish Red ale (5% ABV) and a seasonal Nollaig Brew (4% ABV) that is only available during November and December in Cork pubs.
Carlow Brewing Company, County Carlow
Also known as O’Hara’s Brewery, the Carlow Brewing Company was established in 1996, around the time of the rise of the Irish craft beer movement. Family owned, this brewery is situated in the heart of Ireland’s malt growing region in County Carlow, and has taken home several industry awards for their brews.
While O’Hara’s offers the traditional Irish red ale and the classic Irish stout, they also offer a range of other styles of beer, as well.
Franciscan Well, County Cork
Franciscan Well Brewery and Brew Pub in County Cork was founded in 1998, built on the site of an old Franciscan monastery and well that date back to 1219. According to legend, the old Franciscan well had miraculous healing properties that brought people from miles around to drink from it and be cured—and the brewery seems to be following that tradition of healing through drinking. In 2017, they opened a new brewery facility to help meet growing demand.
Franciscan Well’s core offerings include a red ale (4.3% ABV), an IPA (5.5% ABV), a wheat beer cleverly named “Friar Weisse” (4.7% ABV), and a dark stout (4.3% ABV).
Hilden Brewery, County Antrim
Hilden Brewing Company was established in 1981, and is named for the house in which it was built. Hilden House was the former home of Irish linen barons, where the Barbour family created the biggest linen thread company in the world. Now, Hilden Brewing Company offers a fine line of craft beers, including their Belfast Blonde (a golden ale with 4.3% ABV), Barney’s Brew (a wheat beer with 5% ABV), and Buck’s Head double IPA (7.2% ABV).
Eight Degrees Brewing, County Cork
The beer masters who founded Eight Degrees Brewing actually aren’t Irish at all—they originally hail from New Zealand and Australia. However, once they made the move to Ireland, they established Eight Degrees Brewing in 2010 and never looked back. The name “Eight Degrees” refers to Ireland’s position at eight degrees west longitude, and is also the recommended serving temperature for the brewery’s concoctions.
The Eight Degrees core lineup includes an award-winning Irish Pale Ale, an Irish red ale, a stout, and their pilsner lager. They also produce a range of seasonal brews and limited edition beers.
Trouble Brewing, County Kildare
Trouble Brewing was founded in 2010, but quickly outgrew their first location and had to move to a larger building by 2013. Their beers are available on tap at several pubs in the surrounding area, although you may have to ask about their seasonal selections. Their year-round lineup includes the Deception Golden Ale (4.3% ABV), Dark Arts Porter (4.4% ABV), Vietnow IPA (5.5% ABV), and Remix India Pale Lager (4.9% ABV).
If you’d like to see past offerings, the Trouble Brewing website keeps a list of past beers that they’ve produced, along with notes regarding the ABV and flavor profile. With quirky names like “Fuzzy Logic” and “The Fresh Prince of Kildare” we can only hope that the Trouble Brewing team will someday see fit to bring back some golden oldies.
Armagh Cider Company, County Armagh
While not quite beer, the Armagh Cider Company bears a mention in the craft brewing movement. This cider company is a family business—the Troughton family have been growing apples in County Armagh since 1898, and they pride themselves on the fact that their ciders are made “from blossom to bottle” on the family farm. The company’s first cider went to market in 2006, and Armagh Cider Company is leading the way in the revival of the craft cider industry.
Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Irish craft breweries. There are so many companies today producing high quality products for a discerning market. It stands to reason that the Irish beer industry is not only healthy, but growing exponentially. So let’s raise a glass to a time-honored tradition, and toast the monks, the alewives, and the craftsmen who keep us all from dying of thirst. Sláinte!
Are you a fan of Irish beer? Have you tried any of these Irish craft brews? Let us know in the comments below! And head on over to ShamrockGift.com to check out our full range of Guinness merchandise, including barware, kitchenware, and more.