You may have noticed in recent years that craft beers have exploded in popularity all over the world. Even the most old-fashioned, middle-of-nowhere type pubs will have one or two craft beers in stock, and you’ll often find people in bars discussing the merits of IPAs over porters or the difference in hops. As a country that enjoys its beer, Ireland has naturally been at the forefront of this trend.
As well as heavyweight brands like Guinness turning their hand to artisan drinks, there are numerous microbreweries popping up all over country too. In fact, almost every county in Ireland has at least one select brew, and craft beer festivals are a regular occurrence both in cities and rural towns. We’ve put together a guide to the Irish craft beer scene, so you can impress all those connoisseurs next time you hit your local pub.
How Craft Beer is Made
At the most basic level, craft beer is made in the same way as all other beers. All it takes is four simple ingredients; water, yeast, hops and barley (or another type of grain like rye or maize). These four ingredients go through a few stages to end up as beer. First is malting; the barley is heated and dried so that it cracks, isolating the enzymes needed. Next is mashing; the grains are steeped in hot water to activate the enzymes and release sugars.
The water is drained away leaving a sticky mess known as ‘wort’. After that comes boiling; the mixture is boiled and hops are added to counteract the sweetness of the wort (and act as a preservative). The fourth stage is fermentation; The wort is cooled, strained and filtered before being put in a large vessel along with some yeast to ferment. This process turns the mixture into alcoholic beer as we know it, and takes time - anything from a few weeks to a few months, or more. Finally, the beer is bottled. It can either be artificially or naturally carbonated at this stage, and after another period of ageing, it’s finally ready to drink! The main difference between craft breweries and mass produced brands is size.
Drinks like Guinness, Heineken etc. are made in huge factory style brewery set-ups with strictly monitored processes. Craft beer operations are much smaller, in some cases even operating from purpose built sheds on the master brewer’s property! Craft beer tends to use much simpler processes also, allowing their beers to naturally carbonate and dispensing with the filtering and pasteurising stages that bigger production lines use. This results in more organic beers; think of it like making your own lemonade instead of buying a carton with added preservatives and colouring from the supermarket. Finally (and most importantly for the drinker), craft beers often use unique ingredients to bring fuller flavours, interesting aromas and overall better taste. It comes at a cost however; craft beers are often more expensive than mass produced beers and almost always have a higher alcohol content. So don’t forget to drink responsibly!
Your Craft Beer Tasting Guide
For the uninitiated, the world of craft beer can seem confusing at the best of times, and intimidating at the worst. If you don’t know how to tell a blonde ale apart from a red ale (not counting the colour of course) or what the difference is between a porter and a stout, don’t worry. Here’s a breakdown of the most common types of beers and what they usually taste like.
Ale ferments quickly (sometimes in as little as fortnight) and at a high temperature, leaving a yeast-heavy flavour. There are many, many different types of ale. Usually named after colour (amber ale, blonde ale, pale ale etc.), as the general rule the lighter the colour the sweeter the taste, and the darker the colour the more malty it gets. India Pale Ale (IPA) is ale with an intense flavour of hops, originally used to ensure the beer was preserved on long boat journeys from Europe to India.
Lager ferments at cold temperatures and at a much slower rate than ale. As a result lagers have a much milder, crisper and refreshing taste, and are usually golden in colour. Lager is the most widely consumed type of beer in the world and is thought to have first originated in central Europe - ‘lager’ is German for ‘to store’ - when brewers kept their beer in cold caves to keep it fresh.
Depending on who you ask there are either a small number of very important differences, or no differences at all between Stout and Porter. Both are dark (almost black) and get their colour from using roasted barley. They have a thick, creamy head and often come with coffee or chocolatey accents. Porter originated in London in the early 18th century, and the word ‘Stout’ came into play when particularly strong porters began to be brewed. Then Guinness came along, and the rest is history.
As you may have guessed, wheat beer is made using wheat as well as barley as the source grain. They have a low hop flavour, often contain hints of banana or clove-like accents, and generally have a large foamy head. There are two main categories of wheat beer; Weissbier and Witbier (both of which mean ‘white beer’!). Weissbier originated in Bavaria - you may know it as Paulaner or Erdinger. Witbier originated in Belgium and the Netherlands, is cloudy in appearance and often preserved with spices, plants or fruits (especially citrus) instead of hops.
The archetypal Czech beer, Pilsner is actually a category of lager. The first Pilsner was produced in the city of Pilsen in Bohemia in 1842. it’s still around today under the name of Pislner Urquell. A light, clear beer, Pilsner has a distinctive hoppy flavour not present in most other lagers. The brewing process was soon widely copied all over Europe, earning the Czech Republic its much deserved title as one of the best (if not the best) beer makers in the world.
Irish Craft Beers you should Try
There are literally hundreds of different craft beers on the Irish market at the moment, with more making their debut every day. Nonetheless, here are ten of the most popular breweries and what they’ve managed to brew up for the thirsty natives.
Brewed in windswept and rural Donegal, Kinnegar is regarded by many as the golden child of Irish craft beer. A mixture of traditional brewing methods and unique flavours, their six beers include pale ale, red ale, IPA, porter, amber ale and their newest addition - Rustbucket Rye Ale. Already with several accolades under its belt, this name is one to watch.
Best known for their creamy stouts, O’Haras (or the Carlow Brewing Company to give them their official name) makes beer in the heart of Ireland’s malt and hop growing region. Although regarded as a ‘traditonal Irish’ brand, they’re no stranger to more unusual craft beer styles - among their seasonal range last year was a spiced amber ale and a dark wheat beer.
Founded in 2010 in county Waterford, the Dungarvan Brewing Company emphasises purity in their beers. All of their beers are unfiltered, unpasteurised, naturally carbonated, and bottled by hand. They’re even vegan friendly! Their Helvick Gold Irish Blonde Ale has won several awards, but their Coffee and Oatmeal Stout is also well worth a try.
A veteran brewery where craft beer is concerned, Franciscan Well is situated in the heart of Cork city (on the site of an old Franciscan monastery) and was founded in 1998. Its five drinks include two German style beers, one red ale, one lager and a dry stout. The red ale is the most popular, and can be found in many bars across the country.
Based in Kildare and founded in 2010, Trouble Brewing was one of the first major players on the craft beer scene. Their fun and somewhat dark branding is reflected in their beers, especially the Dark Arts Porter which is easily the most popular in the range. Like many other craft brewers, they also produce various weird and wacky seasonal and one-off brews.
One of the most popular craft beer brands on the market, Cork’s Eight Degrees Brewing Company was in fact founded by an Australian and a New Zealander who made their way over here. That hasn’t stopped them adding an Irish twist to their beers though, with brews like ‘Grand Stretch IPA’, ‘Gasman Rye IPA’ and ‘Knockmealdown Irish Stout’ making it into their wide ranging collection.Image Source: Lovin Dublin
The Galway Bay Brewery is the powerhouse of Irish craft beer. They brew a red ale, IPA, Double IPA and porter as well as a unique milk chocolate stout and the experimental ‘Pilot’ series (peanut butter stout or chili pumpkin ale, anyone?). As well as that, they’ve also opened 9 exclusive craft beer bars in Dublin and their native Galway… so far.
Named after both the hop variety they use (humulus lupulus) and the legendary last wolf species to roam Ireland’s hills, Wicklow Wolf brewery is fast becoming a favourite on the Irish craft beer scene. As well as the usual IPA and porter, this Wicklow brewery’s core range includes an American amber ale and a traditional Kentucky Common beer, plus seasonal editions.
Taking its name from the ancient Irish site Bru na Boinne (where Newgrange is situated), Bru Brewery was founded in 2013 by two friends - Patrick and Daire - in county Meath. A fun side project that turned into a booming business, their core range of beers now includes a Czech style larger, Irish dry stout, IPA and red ale, and they also brew up various limited edition concoctions.
Blacks of Kinsale:
Founded in 2013 by husband and wife team Sam and Maudeline Black, the Blacks of Kinsale brewery in Cork currently has 8 beers in its portfolio. Their aim was to ‘escape the mass market by producing beers with passion and personality’, and they certainly succeeded. Their punchy beers range from stout, pale ale, IPA and even Double IPA for those who really like their hops.