Article By: Andy Crouch
Among everyday beer drinkers, the Republic of Ireland stands as one of the world’s great brewing nations. The land where velvety pints of Dublin Gold pour forth from countless taps in myriad quaint pubs, from Dublin to Kinsale to Sligo. The nation is also home to the slightly less well known Irish Red Ale, of which dozens of knock-offs have filled American tap handles and package store shelves since the beginning of the craft beer revolution. Despite its perceived beer prowess, the recent history of Irish brewing has largely been a case study in the consolidation of the industry at large.
THE MODERN FACE OF IRISH BREWING
Perhaps the Emerald Isle’s most famous export, the opaque, cascading beauty of Guinness has long dominated the Irish beer scene. Founded in 1759 by Arthur Guinness, the brewery bearing his name has been instrumental in changing the way people perceive beer. While the overwhelming bulk of beer sold in this nation, and around the world, derives from a common lager history, often in a simplified version of the pilsner style, the pitch black Guinness stands as a stark counterpoint. For many beer drinkers, their first sip of the classic Dry Irish Stout was revelatory and memorable. It opened their eyes to a new world of flavors and textures, a wondrous mixture of creamy foam and roasted bitterness, all along a thick, mouth-filling wash of body.
Long the most popular beer brand in Ireland, recent years have not been so kind to either the brand or the brewery. A new generation of lager drinking youths has turned against the dark stalwart, both due to their changing palates and in response to the brewery’s loss of its Irish identity. Ireland’s most popular brewery and the icon for a nation at large has not actually been Irish for some time now. As the popularity of the Guinness brand grew, the company rapidly expanded beyond its island home and into nations around the world. Guinness either set up breweries in Africa, Asia and beyond, or worked with local breweries to produce its beers on a contract basis. This global approach soon led to new associations and acquisitions, such as the purchase of Desnoes & Geddes, the Jamaican producer of the popular Red Stripe lager brand. Each deal grew the size of the company and took it further away from its Irish roots, leading to the merger with Grand Metropolitan PLC in 1997. Long headquartered in London, the resulting company, Diageo, is one of the largest beverage alcohol producers in the world.
Diageo has had its share of controversies, regarding the Guinness brand in particular, including a long standing claim that it has gradually lightened the color, body and flavor of its signature stout. Once perceived as jet black in hue, the pints of Guinness you now buy in your local pub come with slight ruby touches at the edges. Whether this perception is in fact true or simply the mind playing tricks is hard to quantify.
Perhaps no decision has been so controversial or symbolic of the disconnect between average drinkers and the corporate conglomerate than the floating of an idea to sell part of the historic Guinness brewery itself. Founded near the center of Dublin, Arthur Guinness cleverly and famously negotiated a 9OOO year lease for the land upon which the brewery and its production facilities sit. The price: a mere forty five pounds per year (about seventy five dollars today). The historic St. James Gate, as the brewery is known, plays host to millions of visitors per year and remains one of Ireland’s top tourist draws. Covering nearly seventy acres, the property has served the brewery’s expansion needs well over the years. So it was with great concern that loyal Guinness fans learned in June 2OO7 that Diageo was considering a plan to sell most of the property in order to take advantage of historically high property values in the cramped city. The proposed deal, publicized by the Sunday Independent, was largely denied by the company and was later withdrawn.
By that point, the damage had been done. Sales of Guinness in Ireland have dropped by more than twenty five percent in the last eight years, with a nearly ten percent drop in 2OO7. Sales rebounded slightly in 2OO8. International sales of Guinness remain the company’s main focus, with its sister market in Britain remaining its largest. Symptomatic of the changes facing the historic brand, the brewery announced in 2OO7 that the country of Nigeria had surpassed Ireland as the second largest market for Guinness.
The consolidation of the beverage alcohol market is a microcosm of the industry at large – just spun through a centrifuge. A review of the popular products often promoted in part by their Irish heritage shows just how little of the old world associations really exist in the modern business world. Diageo owns not only Guinness but also beer brands Harp, Kilkenny’s and Smithwick’s, along with spirits brands Bailey’s and Bushmill’s. The world’s most popular brand of Irish whiskey, Jameson, was purchased by French alcohol conglomerate Pernod Ricard in 1988, which also owns Black Bush, Tullamore Dew, Powers, Paddy, Redbreast, and Midleton VR. As an alternative to Guinness, Murphy’s Irish Stout is owned by Heineken International, which also owns the Beamish brand, whose brewery in Cork the Dutch owned company closed in 2OO9. Following more than three hundred years of brewing on the site, the closure of the Beamish brewery allowed the brand to fall into obscurity.
Despite its storied brewing history, whether rooted in fact or fable, the explosion of craft brewing around the world has largely bypassed Ireland. The nation hosts only about a dozen breweries today, the bulk of which consist of international conglomerates or tiny operations. Of these operations, only the Carlow Brewing Company south of Dublin produces a measurable amount of beer. The small company also distributes beer in the United States, mainly driven by its O’Haras Celtic Stout, Curim Gold Celtic Wheat Beer and Molings Traditional Red Ale. These relatively difficult to find brands, imported by Distinguished Brands International, reflect one of the only remaining Irish owned and run breweries remaining in the country today. As brewery owner Seamus O’Hara notes on his website, the small company aims to recreate the qualities and traditions of Irish brewing lost in today’s corporate marketplace.
“We have gone back to basics and brew our beers as they used to be brewed, with natural ingredients and no artificial additives,” he says. “We believe this leads to a superior quality product, with robust body, taste, flavour, and aroma. Compare these characteristics with any of the mainstream brands and you will taste the difference.”
CELEBRATING ST. PATRICK’S DAY IN AMERICA
Living and writing about beer in the Boston area, it is impossible to miss the excitement that average drinkers and tourists alike feel at the coming of the St. Patrick’s holiday. At bars throughout the city, imbibing throngs will pack places, donning foam hats and clinking mugs of green Budweiser and Miller Lite. While these individuals might not be able to tell you the history of the man known as Naomh Pádraig, the fact remains that the holiday is one of the nation’s biggest sales events for beer. Putting aside the larger brewery paper shamrock laden promotions, American craft brewers produce a range of Irish inspired beers for the occasion.
IRISH STYLE DRY STOUT
In its earliest incarnation, the stout designation simply signified a stronger than average beer and was even applied to pale beers. As the style developed in Britain and then Ireland, including an early version by Arthur Guinness’ brewery, stout came to be known as a stronger version of brown porter. Despite its foreboding appearance, opaque and dark with a sizable, sustained creamy head, modern incarnations of stout are the polar opposite of heavy beers. Slight in calories but long on flavor, Irish style Dry Stouts remain a surprisingly approachable style. With a light to medium body, these stouts have a light carbonation when served from the bottle or take on an airy, creamy consistency if served from a nitrogen tap system. The dry moniker of this deceptively low alcohol beer is apt as a distinct yet reserved bitterness imparted by roasted barley dominates the malt bill and gives off coffee and dark chocolate notes. As is their habit, American versions of the classic style tend to posses a hoppier touch and sometimes bear closer resemblance to the porter style.
The Old No. 38 Stout from the North Coast Brewing Company in Fort Bragg, California, starts off with a characteristic dark brown color with light reddish touches at the extremes, and possesses a pale cream head with mild retention. The aroma is lightly creamy with mild pale malts and even a slight lactic tang. The resulting flavor is slightly bitter from dry roasted malts, perfect for the style, which quickly fades into a hint of creaminess and a dark roasted finish, while remaining very light on the palate. Approachable and never over-whelming, Old No. 38 Stout is a classic version of the style.
A local offering from the Paper City Brewing Company, Riley’s Stout is just above five percent alcohol by volume and is dark brown to black in color with the slightest edges of red and a soft creamy tan head. The aroma is mildly of European malts with a hint of sweetness and a dash of cream that devolves into a light roasted malted milk ball character. The medium-bodied beer’s flavor is quite creamy and smartly balances the darker and lighter malt flavors, resulting in a pleasantness that alternates between milky creaminess and lightly burnt maltiness. A light hint of alcohol and underlying fruity esters adds another element to this beer.
IRISH STYLE RED ALE
Aside from the classic Irish style Dry Stout, the Irish Red Ale stands as perhaps the Irish nation’s most popular contribution to the world of craft beer. The history of this style, however, remains mired in a bit of controversy and cloud. Seemingly never a major style in Ireland, it was first popularized in the United States with the introduction of the red-hued lager produced by the Coors Brewing Company and marked under the George Killian’s Irish Red name. Purportedly based upon a recipe created at the Lett’s Brewery on Enniscorthy, Ireland, the style was originally an ale before another brewery purchased rights to the brand after its closure in 1956. Coors purchased the rights to produce a brand called Killian’s Irish Red, which went on to develop a solid constituency in the US.
The style as it exists today in America is light or medium red or amber in hue, with a soft tan head, and a medium range of alcohol, nearing five percent by volume. The aromas are generally comprised of sweet, bready and toasted malts, often reserved in consistency, with little to no hop presence. The flavor profile consists of a straightforward caramel sweetness, mixed with touches of fruit but with a dry finish. The Irish style Red Ale and its approachable malt characters remain an excellent way to introduce novices to craft beer.
An unlikely entrant into the category, the Lavaman Red Ale from the Kona Brewing Company of Kailua Kona, Hawaii, produces a five percent alcohol offering with a vibrant amber tone and a whipped tan caramel head of foam. The resulting beer is an excellent mixture of fruit and malt flavors, commencing with bready, caramel and chocolate malts, and additions of dried fruits, including prunes and dates, and finishes with a slightly evergreen floral finish.
The Whistling Pig Red Ale, produced by the Jasper Murdock’s Alehouse in Norwich, Vermont, remains an excellent local version of the style. Produced in a quaint brewing shed next to the wonderfully restored Norwich Inn near the Dartmouth College campus, Whistling Pig Red Ale starts with a deep reddish hue and a sustained, sticky khaki head. The nose fills with toasted malts, mild citrus and apple fruit notes, a light touch of butter from diacetyl, and a hint of herbal hoppiness. Resulting in a moderate body, the flavor kickstarts toasted and caramel grains mixed and an earthy and woody hop quality.